The Economic Ripple Effects of the Apartheid: Wealth Disparities in Johannesburg

This past Monday, after spending the first two weeks of our study abroad in the beautiful coastal city of Cape Town, we arrived in the largest city in South Africa, Johannesburg—or Jo’burg, as the locals call it. The immediate city of Jo’burg has a population around 4.5 million, with broader definitions, which include additional areas and townships, increasing the population closer to 10 million (Statistics, 2015). Jo’burg’s province, Gauteng, which is the smallest South African province, serves as the economic engine of South Africa, responsible for 34.8% of the country’s GDP. The most important sectors in the province include finance, real estate, and business services; manufacturing; and general government services. Jo’burg has also been a hot spot for gold and diamond mining, with the headquarters of both Anglo American and De Beers lying in the city (The Local, 2015).

During the Apartheid (1948-1994), the National Party instituted segregation across South Africa in order to restore white supremacy. Along with the physical separation of moving non-white South Africans out of the white, urban areas, the government also worked to create wealth and power separation between non-whites and whites, offering non-whites inferior education, decreasing their access to high-level jobs. The Apartheid was able to decrease intra-race disparities, as the whites were all extended increased opportunities and non-whites were all suppressed, solely because of their races. Thus, although the intra-race inequality decreased, the wealth gap between whites and non-whites widened (Linford, 2011). In order to fully ensure white dominance, the National Party dedicated itself to advancing the welfare of white South Africans, working to improve the standing of poor white. Subsequently, poor people of European background benefited greatly from the Apartheid, as they could move up classes and bypass even higher-educated non-whites. The Apartheid lasted five decades, though, and the National Party became more lenient at times (specifically in the 1970s), allowing some highly educated non-white South Africans to obtain higher-level jobs. However, lower skill jobs, such as in mining, slowly began to diminish, leaving many poorly educated non-whites without jobs, which reversed the earlier trend and increased the inequality even within races (Linford, 2011).

The economic ripple effects from the Apartheid are very prevalent in South African, most notably in Johannesburg. The Apartheid officially ended in 1994, and allowed more opportunity for class mobility. Past Apartheid laws have been destroyed and educated non-whites are now able to land professional jobs (Linford, 2011). However, given the many years of the Apartheid and the fact it ended just 20 years ago, the vast majority of the black population is left uneducated and without desirable skills. Jo’burg serves as a great example of the current discrepancies resulting from the Apartheid. Besides all of the large office buildings, many belonging to multinational corporations, one thing I have noticed while traveling around Jo’burg are the cars. I usually find that the types of cars I see in different areas are a good, general gauge of the wealth in the area, especially because of the high vehicle taxes and gas prices that many countries face. While being in Jo’burg, I’ve seen several luxury cars, including multiple Ferraris and a surplus of BMWs and Mercedes. Based off observation, the majority of drivers of these vehicles appear to be whites and coloreds.


Alexandra Township, outside Johannesburg Source:

In addition, when traveling around Jo’burg, it isn’t unusual to quickly transition back and forth between clearly wealthy areas to, what many would consider, slums. In Johannesburg, I’ve noticed that the townships, mostly filled with crammed, handmade shacks, are integrated with the city. Contrastingly, in Cape Town, the townships were more on the outskirts of the city, and I couldn’t notice the poverty as easily. Earlier this week, we spent time working at a Primary School (Ekukhanyisweni – students graduate once they can pronounce the name of the school correctly) in one of Jo’burg’s townships, Alexandra (or Alex). At the school, we were lucky enough to donate shoes, backpacks and school supplies to the students. The kids were beyond excited to get a new pair of shoes, and when looking at the conditions of the shoes they had been wearing, it was truly shocking and disheartening.

From my aforementioned experience in Alexandra and my exposure to South Africa throughout the past three weeks, it is very clear that the country still faces vast economic disparities and that race still plays a major role in these wealth differences. The government is working to improve the post-Apartheid country through governmental redistribution of income through progressive taxes, as well as through the creation of social programs to aid the poor. Even with these efforts, the successes of the earlier Apartheid regime in promoting the advancement of whites still appear to prevail, and the many years of whites utilizing their economic position to obtain excellent education result in the extremely varied pattern of income distribution. Thus, the government needs to focus more on funding the public school system, specifically in townships, so that blacks are able to receive the proper education that they have been deprived for so long.

Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa, once famously said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Increasing the education levels of black South Africans can greatly help eliminate race-driven poverty and create a better South Africa for all its people.



Linford, Andrew. (2011). Inequality Trends in South Africa. GeoCurrents. Retrieved from

The Local Government Handbook. (2015). Gauteng (Yes Media). Pretoria, South Africa:

Retrieved from

Statistics South Africa. (2015). City of Johannesburg (Statistics South Africa). Pretoria, South

Africa: Retrieved from


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