South African Economy During and After the Apartheid Era: What’s the Difference?

Through our group work in the fall and writing our research proposal, I felt confident that I had a sense of how the South African economy was working. I knew that the economy as a whole is suffering. There are high levels of unemployment (28%), complexities with education access, and there are limited opportunities for sustainable jobs. The formal economy in broad terms made sense to me. However, what I was really ignorant of was the informal economy, and how there are such obvious economic systematic disparities among the people of South Africa.

One day, our class visited the Langa township. At first glance, this township looked unimaginable. It was nothing like I had ever seen in America. Houses were made from steel scraps and car parts, people were dressed in old and torn clothes, and multiple families together were cramped into a tiny room. The conditions were almost unlivable. At one point, we came upon a market with various handmade items. Our group looked around for a while before a couple of people made some purchases from the woman. She was overly grateful and shook our hands saying “god bless you all”. I started to inquire about the economy to our guide. She explained that most everyone living in these townships are living in extreme poverty. They are making less than a living wage, and therefore depend upon “group collection”, where families and friends combine their money to buy items/electricity/food for the whole group. What very little they are buying, they share with one another. I then asked what people in these townships did for work. Our guide explained that this was a very complex issue. She stated that some men woke up early every morning to travel to more urban areas to work. These men may only have the chance to work a couple of days a week, because sometimes the bus to the city was too full, or men would get to work and they would be told that they are not needed that day. Thus, lots of people are only brining home a two day/week salary, and that is not a livable wage for one person, much less a family.

The women in the townships had a variety of roles. Most mothers stayed in the townships to look after the children. Some women made creative crafts and various items to sell to tourists who come into the village. The kids would go to school. However, getting the children to school was even difficult. Those who could afford transportation for their children could arrange their children to be driven there. Most cannot afford transportation, and so these children and their mothers are walking miles to and from school each day. I also learned that school is only mandatory until grade 8. Therefore, some of the older children would drop out of school to look for work just to bring in more income.

To be honest, I was disturbed by a lot of this. I told our guide that my group was researching the economy in South Africa post-Apartheid. At first she chuckled, and seemed to joke that “not much has changed for us”. Intrigued, I asked what she meant by that. In short, her response dealt with the idea that the impoverished townships and the poor are not reaping any economic benefits, but instead these communities are continuing to struggle for years and years. The women who work endlessly on homemade crafts and goods barely make any profit, and the money that they do make never lasts long. Thus, the cycle of poverty continues. Their lives are essentially the same as they were during the Apartheid, when there was purposeful segregation and economic inequality. On the bus ride back from Langa, I thought about our tour guide’s comments and reflected on my own observations. Immediately I thought back to our class discussion and the “dance of the lemons”. The way we discussed this saying in the fall was regarding the issue of less educated and essentially lower-quality teachers would be assigned to teach in poorer districts. This perpetuates the cycle of poverty because then children are less motivated and may not finish their education, and they remain “stuck” in what they know. After talking with the principle at Ekukhanyisweni Primary School, she noted that teachers are so undervalued and outnumbered that most days they have to spend more time waking up and prompting children in class rather than actually teaching material. This caused me to start to think about the dance of the lemons in a broader sense in dealing with the economy.

During the Apartheid era, blacks and coloreds were separated from the white superior race. Blacks were forcibly removed from their homes and neighborhoods and driven into overcrowded townships. This made it especially difficult for blacks to make money because their homes were now extremely far away from major cities and economic opportunity. Whites had the benefit of living close in the cities and could walk to work without showing a passbook. They were reaping the economic benefits of the Apartheid system, while blacks and coloreds struggled in poverty. Today, it is unbelievable to me that there really is not a noticeable difference in terms of the economic disparities between races. Sato’s “Forced Removals, Land Structures, and Restoration of Land in South Africa” says, “many of these damaging removal effects are still present currently within the townships” (Sato 18). I now understood why our tour guide made the comment that “not much has changed here”

So now I have to wonder: what is the solution? Is there an easy one? Because the strong economic divide is so closely correlated with the continuing social and racial divisions, it is reasonable to conclude that drastic social change is imperative. Basic changes need to be made in order for economic growth to be equitable amongst South African citizens. Infrastructure and access to sustainable jobs should be main priorities in terms of restructuring the economy for the future. In doing so, this will create more accessible opportunities for economic advancement for people living in townships. If people had access to a proper education, they would therefore be able to contribute perhaps to the formal economy, and there would be less people in townships who exclusively contribute to and rely on the informal economy. I appreciate that this would be the product of an ideal economy. In truth, for sufficient change to be made, this takes a lot of time, and time is uncertain. As Brooks’ “What economic future, South Africa?” says, “predicting the future ultimately relies upon the assumptions one must make about future government behavior….not an easy business” (Brooks 1). Though legally and technically speaking, Sough Africa is living in a post-Apartheid economy, it seems that many of the inequitable and unjust economic effects are still present in this country today, specifically in areas of poverty and townships. Ironically, during our visit to Freedom Square in Soweto, one of the core principles of the South African Congress Alliance from 1990 states “all apartheid practices shall be set aside”. Unfortunately, until social and economic change has progressed, the effects of these economic disparities between races will remain stagnant.

Works Cited:

Spector, J Brooks. “What Economic Future, South Africa?” Daily Maverick, 1 July 2014,            future-south-africa/#.WIYp8hsrJPY. Accessed 30 December 2016.

Sato, C. Forced Removals, Land Struggles and Restoration of Land in South Africa: A             Case of Roosboom. Retrieved January 22, 2017.

-London Vaughn

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