The Real Apartheid Economy

“It’s nothing personal. That’s just how our economy works” (When Swallows Cry). As I sat watching the play unfold, this line caught my attention. Not only because the context of the scene regarded human trafficking, but because there is truth in these words for the disadvantaged, lower-class in South Africa, particularly the blacks and the colors. This play and the culmination of my time in South Africa has made me call into question the different types economic systems and their uses. It was a dangerous rabbit hole to fall down late at night after such a thought provoking play, but the result was a personal epiphany which has forever changed my views on business and human rights.

As a business student, my first impression of the South African economy was similar to the picture painted by the article we read “What Economic Future, South Africa?” by J. Specktor. My narrow view included its mineral, gold, and diamond exports, its desire for 5% growth over the next 10 years, and staggering unemployment rates (Specktor). However, once we arrived it seemed like every day I added a new layer of knowledge to my understanding of the country’s many micro economies. In the markets and townships, I was exposed to the people’s innovation through microfinancing initiatives and crafty, small businesses. At Robben Island and later Constitution Hill, I learned about the prison economy, where cigarettes and sex were traded for extra food. At the Lesedi cultural village, I discovered that in many South African tribes +11 cows and maybe a horse or two will buy any man a wife. Yet, there was still something missing.

It wasn’t until I sat front and center watching When Swallows Cry through misty eyes that the rest of the pieces fell into place. In the same scene as the previously stated line, the commandant compared the value of African lives (blacks) to those of Americans or Canadians (whites). The first part of my realization was if a white life is worth more than a black life just as the dollar is worth more than a rand that is inflation. If inflation exists and one good or object is being traded for another, than apartheid (and many other systems of oppression) can be classified as an economy in itself. We learned in the fall that the traditionally accepted economy played a role in maintaining and later ‘ending’ apartheid; however, apartheid is a separate system which doesn’t deal with hard currency. In this economy, the human dignity and respect of some are being traded for the financial and political benefits of others. I speak in the present because these tradeoffs still exist and so does the economy of apartheid even though the regulations have been lifted. The inflation between black and white lives may have fallen slightly since 1994, but the gap still exists creating an excellent “exchange rate” for whites. The question of why this has been allowed to continue became so much clear when I examined apartheid as an economic system.

My business classes have taught me that when the exchange rate works in your favor you take advantage of it while you can. Even though economic systems are manmade and controlled by the demand of the whole, it has been my experience that people subconsciously reject the fact that together the collective can change the economic outlook. It is always the economy’s fault, as if it has a mind of its own. Hence lines like “It’s nothing personal. That’s just how our economy works.” However, economic principles point to a potential solution. If those benefitting from a good exchange rate would leverage their power for the good of the whole and if the disadvantaged masses would increase the demand for justice, there would be an economic shift.

Of course, this is much easier said than done. The road to economic recovery faces many challenges; the foremost of which is time. Economic recovery is not a fast process. It takes a lot of time and continuous efforts to improve it. Often the recovery time is unpredictable, one day inflation can be down and the slightest shift could send it skyrocketing the next. Another tantalizing hurtle is the reliance of the advantaged minority to be selfless and go against the grain of the typical business mindset. It is a daunting task, but it is the course that the South African people, and quite frankly the world as a whole, should pursue swiftly. If not, black South Africans will continue to hear the same flimsy excuse, “It’s nothing personal. That’s just how our economy works” for decades to come.


Work Cited

Specktor, J. “What Economic Future, South Africa? | Daily Maverick.” Daily Maverick. N.p., 1 July 2014. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.

When Swallows Cry. By Mike Van Graan. Dir. Lesedi Job. South Africa, Johannasburg. 18 Jan. 2017. Performance.

This entry was posted in Class of 2017. Bookmark the permalink.