Those who are privileged must contribute to the lives of the less privileged by not simply “helping” but sharing their wealth. We need legal measures to regulate tax paying so that inequality gaps can be closed to bring all people toward similar living standards. From student struggles to the land debate, Lebogang Mokoena shares her thoughts on how to create a more just South Africa.
Article originally commissioned by and published in the Funambulist 18 July – August 2018
For South Africa, the year 2018 marks 24 years since the end of a brutal and shameful system that aimed at racial segregation, oppression, and disposition, characterized by an authoritative rule based on white supremacy. The overcoming of Apartheid policy, that had designed institutional racism and created inequalities, was one of the most significant political victories for South African people, leading South Africa into a democratic state in 1994 and painting the picture of a “rainbow nation.” This depiction assumes a community in which citizens are living in harmony and unity despite all odds. Parallel to this, South Africa has internationally and locally become well known as a country with a forward-thinking constitution enshrining many different liberties like same-sex marriage and freedom of expression and movement, and also boasts the exemplary leadership of former-President Nelson Mandela.
But what does that mean for someone like myself, a Black female born in 1991 and raised in less-privileged circumstances in Johannesburg’s South Western Townships? Understanding the country’s political history as a tremendous focal point in exploring its need for structural transformation, I generally think that post-Apartheid South Africa has inherited many of the problems from its past. Although there are many examples of success in the attempts of equalization and the extension of social welfare and services to millions living in the country, South Africa’s economic legacy and racial injustices have not disappeared.
Since 1994, economic indicators such as poverty, inequality and unemployment have been on the rampage. An exceptionally high amount of poverty remains, especially among Black people, with South Africa being the most unequal economy in the world. An approximated 95% of the country’s wealth is in the hands of 10% of the minority white population. These continuing conditions manifest themselves in thousands of localized struggles.
From various townships like Alexander in Johannesburg, which neighbors the expensive “economic hub” in Sandton, and as far as rural regions in Mpumalanga, Limpopo, and KwaZulu-Natal, many people of color are unemployed. Some to this day still have to deal with limited sanitation, such as the lack of running water and indoor toilets. A number of people of color can’t escape living in corrugated steel shacks, which often house families of six or more. On top of this, they have to face mediocre public services in clinics and schools. The other part of our society, however, is financially privileged and has access to institutions with high-quality services.
Hence, there are daily demonstrations in different parts of the country. Citizens are frustrated with the slow economic and social change. Subsequently, they go out into the streets to demand basic services. These daily protests mirror the many problems we have; the country is defined by and known for them.
In the past few years, protests like #FeesMustFall made it to our streets. The youth of the country demanded an accessible educational system that stops sidelining those who cannot afford tuition, and which includes and assists those from disadvantaged backgrounds to further their studies. The struggle for education is nothing new, given that the youth in 1976 broke out into protests against the poor curriculum designed for Black schools, called Bantu education. Today, each academic year, many students, including myself, queue at student funding offices hoping our debts and fees can be paid. However the struggle goes beyond this, as there is also a need for money towards meals and commuting to campus. Those of us who cannot afford local transportation and additional meals can’t just go on and focus on academic tasks, not until these problems are solved and the costs are covered.
Another prominent issue is the land reform debacle. Land reform in South Africa is a similar issue to that in neighboring countries like Namibia and Zimbabwe: it is a central, emotional topic. My grandmother has shared with me many stories about land. Despite the persistent assumptions that Black people in South Africa do not have any agricultural knowledge, she has explained to me how her family used to live on crops they planted themselves. They had space for well-managed livestock- and didn’t have any shortages. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case today. Now she is bothered by the lack of room we have, given that we are a family of seven crammed into a four-room house.
As with other problems, property ownership has not been dealt with well, neither in 1994 nor since. More than two decades after the end of Apartheid, white citizens still own most of South Africa’s land. In the effort to reduce inequality, the Left opposition party, called the Economic Freedom Fighters, has been advocating for redistribution. In the current rhetoric of a “radical economic transformation,” there is much discourse on the demand for a re-transfer of land from white to Black people. Black owners were forcibly dispossessed under the rule of European colonists via the Natives Land Act of 1913. Then, through policies created by the National Party, they lost the right to own property. In the last few weeks, the parliament has supported changes in the Constitution to allow expropriation without compensation. Against this national outcry, the right-wing organization Afriforum is arguing that South African property rights are under threat. This is despite the fact that the majority of us are landless, and call our home country “Azania,” which inherently belongs to our forefathers. A state land audit released in February of this year indicates that farms and agricultural holdings comprise 97% of the 121.9 million hectares of the nation’s area, and whites own 72% of the 37 million hectares held by individuals. This coincides with the results of a separate audit by AGRI Development Solutions and the farm lobby group AGRI SA, which found that non-whites now own 27% of the country’s farmland — it was 14% in 1994.
One would expect that the ruling African National Congress, which Mandela was a part of, would continue its successes by distinguishing itself from other African states like Namibia and Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe over many years of authoritative rule and suppression of fundamental freedoms under Robert Mugabe has been cash-strapped and impoverished. The seizure of commercial white farmers led to a substantial drop in tobacco export and production affecting the economy. In Namibia, approximately 60% of white citizens own agricultural and ancestral land. This struggle dates back from when the German country invaded and killed the Nama and Herero ethnic groups which are currently demanding reparations.
Similar to these struggles, the ANC has become an organization synonymous with corruption and maladministration. The Jacob Zuma presidency that ended on February 14, 2018 was marred by a massive corruption scandal involving state capture and private interests influencing the government’s decisions. The Gupta brothers are Indian born entrepreneurs in the mining, air travel, technology, and media sector who relocated to South Africa in 1993 and have engaged in a systematic looting of state assets to an astonishing scale, by using their relationship with Zuma to influence political appointments and win lucrative government contracts.
Instead of being dominated by the past, whites and Blacks who call South Africa their home should be willing to confront the structural discrimination in our country. Inclusive discussions on various social institutions can lead to a better understanding of the interest in eradicating prevailing shortcomings. I do not know the thoughts of white South Africans, as varied as they might be, on the issues at stake. Right now, I only hear the loudest and angriest voices on social media, which might hardly be representative of all white citizens. Civil society in South Africa can play a huge role in addressing political struggles. As a participant in social movements and a member of civic organizations, I think that these can enable people from different backgrounds to collaboratively confront many of our political problems.
Furthermore, I believe it is crucial that the division between private and public services comes to an end. Currently, there is a huge difference in the quality of services provided by institutions, like schools and clinics, depending on whether they are private or public. This continues to perpetuate the societal division created by the Apartheid regime.
Yet many white citizens seem to be reluctant to think about the implications of colonialism and Apartheid on contemporary South Africa. I also get the impression that both whites and Blacks think the related political problems will magically evaporate. Frankly, South Africans need to first acknowledge the political history that has subsequently led to embedded societal divisions. Denial of having benefited from the Apartheid regime in white communities can create a fear of the unknown in terms of the future and a lack of a sense of guilt with regard to the past, which is a great cause of resentment for people of color. However, admitting that one has “benefitted from the Apartheid system” is only a first step in escaping the cycle of blame and entitlement. Those who are privileged must contribute to the lives of the less privileged by not simply “helping” but sharing their wealth. Helping alone would not amount to changing inequality, but would create gaps and paths for minorities within society. However, we need legal measures to regulate tax paying so that inequality gaps can be closed to bring all people toward similar living standards. On the other hand, people of color need to start reconsidering generational patterns of voting for the ANC based on the narrative told by the party itself and society in general. Voting patterns in South Africa suggest that Black voters do not visualize being lead by a different political party and that they are not keen to change. Our country has approximately 500 political parties from where change could begin. To question the ANC’s progress is significant and can assist in understanding that liberation did not (and will also not in the future) come from only one party and its leaders, but from many different actors.