News | Economic / Social Policy - Southern Africa - Commons / Social Infrastructure Still a Nation of Two Economies

Even 30 years after Apartheid, South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world



Roland Ngam,

Children play in the “temporary emergency accommodation“ at Wembley Stadium, Turffontein provided to displaced residents following the devastating fire that engulfed the Cape York building in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, in 2017. What was intended as a short-term solution has stretched into six years of squalid living conditions. The dire conditions have prompted many to seek alternative housing options, highlighting the city’s failure to provide adequate support for vulnerable populations in times of crisis.
  Photo: Jodi Bieber

South Africans collectively gasped in shock and horror when they first saw the snaking queues. It was the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, and President Cyril Ramaphosa had abruptly announced a strict lockdown. The entire nation was ordered to stay home. For three months, businesses would remain closed. Only doctors, nurses, police officers, journalists, rubbish collectors and other essential service providers were authorized to be out and about during the day or at night.

Roland Ngam works as a Programme Manager for Climate Justice at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Johannesburg Office.

There was widespread panic as people scrambled to secure food and other daily necessities. It quickly became evident that most South Africans did not have any savings and could not sustain themselves for more than two or three days without working to earn money. Government agencies, non-governmental organizations and other benefactors stepped in to distribute food hampers. The staggering number of people living below the upper bound poverty line of 1558 rand[1] (approximately 80 US dollars) per month was a jolt to the senses. Consequently, President Cyril Ramaphosa swiftly announced a 350-rand grant (20 dollars) to help people weather the lockdown. Social groups were eager to tell the government: “we told you so”. They emphasized that the trickle-down policies favoured by the African National Congress (ANC) for over 30 years had inadequately lifted the majority of Black South Africans out of poverty. It was time for something new.

Thirty years into democratic dispensation, South Africa is still a country of two nations, as former President Thabo Mbeki once poignantly described it. The dream of economic freedom post-Apartheid remains elusive. The challenge of poverty remains, to borrow the famous words of the eminent African American scholar William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, “the problem of the colour-line”. Instead of the long-promised great leap forward for the Black majority, there is an ever-widening gap between the two South Africas, which has prompted anxious and sometimes contentious assertions that things were better for Blacks during Apartheid. White South Africans still own almost all of the country’s wealth. Things have changed for Black people, but not much. The vast majority remain entrenched in multidimensional poverty. At the same time, there is an immanent urban-rural divide such that most of the country’s wealth is concentrated in urban enclaves, while rural areas continue to be poor and neglected.

The rural countryside often looks and feels cast adrift. It is dominated by pervasive Apartheid geography, with a preponderance of informal settlements. Municipalities are struggling under the yoke of corruption and poor service delivery, exacerbating challenges faced by hospitals, public transport, schools, and security. Land reform, a longstanding demand since the 1955 “Congress of the People” [2], has yet to be delivered. This is fuelling a sense of betrayal among Black people, and it has become the cudgel that political parties, notably the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and rabble-rousers use to bash the ANC at every opportunity. The widespread unrest in July 2021, which led to an entire week of looting and wanton destruction of private property following the incarceration of former President Jacob Zuma on contempt of court charges, underscores the scale of hardship and yearning for change in South Africa.

The settler colonial experience in South Africa was brutal and extensive.

The Covid-19 pandemic eroded many gains of the pre-pandemic democratic dispensation. The number of learners who completely abandoned school increased. Thousands of businesses closed — some of them permanently — and those that remained operational furloughed numerous workers. The erratic power supply from the country’s ageing coal fleet has cost the economy at least 50 US dollars billion since 2019. If we go back to the onset of load shedding in 2007, that figure more than doubles. Corruption and poor management of key parastatals persist, contributing to collapses in many parts of the country.

That being said, South Africa is undoubtedly on an upward trajectory. The country remains — as the SABC advert used to claim — “alive with possibility”. The challenge, however, is to ensure that all citizens share in this prosperity. This essay delves into the ANC-led attempts at creating a South Africa that works for everyone. It critically examines why the Freedom Charter’s principle — “The People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth” — remains an unrealized goal three decades into Black majority rule. Finally, it posits that that many fundamental aspects of the national question, especially land and the economy, have been postponed for too long and that in order to get the rainbow nation project back on track, these issues must be confronted head-on and with a sense of renewed urgency.

Historical Context

The settler colonial experience in South Africa was brutal and extensive. It affected every square kilometre of the country and all who lived in it over a very long period of time. The creation of the first White settlements and territories (such as the Cape Colony, the Transvaal Republic, and the Orange Free State ) coincided with the mass dispossession of the Black population, who had inhabited the region for centuries. The “Natives Land Act No. 27 of 19 June 1913” authorized the forcible transfer of all Blacks to only seven percent of South African territory. This allocation would later be increased from seven to 13 percent through the “Native Trust and Land Act of South Africa 1936”.

Although initially implemented incrementally, segregation policies gained momentum when Daniël François Malan became Prime Minister of South Africa in 1948. Alongside Home Secretary Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, he implemented race-based Apartheid policies that radically transformed the way South Africans lived and conducted business. Apartheid policies forbade Blacks from living in White areas, which encompassed the majority of the country. They banned interracial relationships and forbade Whites and Blacks from socialising together in public spaces, such as in parks, pubs, or nightclubs. Blacks were also deprived of access to the kind of superior education reserved exclusively for White people.

Verwoerd transformed overcrowded Black reserves into de-facto countries, known as Bantu Homelands or Bantuastans. A total of ten Bantustans were created largely along ethnic lines: Bophuthatswana (Tswana), KwaNdebele (Ndebele), Lebowa (Northern Sotho/Pedi), Venda (Venda), Gazankulu (Tsonga), KaNgwane (Swazi), KwaZulu (Zulu), QwaQwa (Southern Sotho), Transkei (Xhosa), and Ciskei (Xhosa). These pseudo countries, devoid of opportunities, jobs, decent schools, housing, and sanitation, became a dumping ground for Black people. Henceforth, Blacks would no longer be considered South African citizens. If they needed to “go to South Africa”, they would require a “passbook”, essentially a passport, to do so. Townships in urban areas were further segregated along tribal lines. Whites and Blacks alike were also taught that they were not part of Africa. Legally, Blacks were prohibited from permanently staying in urban areas, as these were considered White spaces. Laws such as the “Urban Areas Act of 1923” mandated that Blacks return to townships and homelands whenever there was a recess in production.

According to Anthony Butler (2009), four important events led to an unprecedented scale of social change in South Africa after 1870: war, unification, economic development, and the forging of a migrant working class. Diamonds were discovered in 1867, which prompted England to elevate the territory to one of utmost strategic importance. The English waged a bloody campaign of conquest against the Afrikaaner Boer (farmer) republics in order to have full control over South Africa’s mineral resources. After pacification, these territories were amalgamated with the Cape Colony to establish a unified republic known as the Union of South Africa. Diamond mines attracted large inflows of foreign investment that led to the development of a modern capitalist economy and what Butler describes as “the wholesale transformation of the economic geography of South Africa” (2009: 12). Race-based policies dictated economic activity, financial flows, and the manner in which labour moved around the country.

Black South Africans have resisted racist policies and colonization from the day the first European, Jan van Riebeek, set foot in the Cape colony.

The rapid growth in South Africa’s mines, industries, and farms required significant amounts of labour, i.e. migrant labour from Bantustans and elsewhere. This involved internal cyclical migrant labour, characterized by “an annual movement of able-bodied young African labourers into and out of the core urban economy” (Butler, 2009: 12). From the 1920s onwards, up to 40 percent of active men were away at any given time, working in South Africa’s mines, farms, and industries, while women and children remained in the countryside (Butler, 2009: 12).

The demand for labour continued to grow exponentially, and the internal cyclical migrant labour system soon morphed into a wholesale sub-continental cheap labour system. Mine owners preferred young men from abroad because they could pay them less than Black South Africans. Labour brokers constantly scoured the sub-region (Mozambique, Malawi, Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia) for able-bodied men to work in the mines. The influx of foreigners in the mines sparked deep resentments among Black South Africans, who felt that they were being replaced and that foreigners were taking what was rightfully theirs. This ingrained in many Blacks strong feelings of xenophobia, passed down generation after generation. The isiZulu language is one of the very few African languages that has a specific word for “foreigner”: Amakwerekwere.    

Similarly, in the farming sector, the government brought in indentured workers from Malaysia, China, India, Mauritius, Madagascar, and elsewhere. Indentured labourers worked in sugarcane fields, wine farms, and urban development projects. The high concentration of sugarcane farms in KwaZulu Natal, for example, attracted a large number of indentured labourers from India. Malaysians were typically based in Cape Coast. These movements dramatically shaped how and where people settled in the country.    

Black South Africans have resisted racist policies and colonization from the day the first European, Jan van Riebeek, set foot in the Cape colony (Edward Lahiff, 2007). After the founding of the Union of South Africa, majority Black parties such as the South African Native National Congress (founded in 1912, later becoming the African National Congress in 1923) and the Pan Africanist Congress (founded in 1959) led a long campaign of non-violent resistance against Apartheid policies. Non-violent strategies were coupled with armed struggle when the ANC’s armed wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), was launched in 1961. While uMkhonto we Sizwe sabotaged key South African infrastructure at home, the leaders of the political wing coordinated a sustained international boycott campaign from offices in Lusaka and London. A combination of civil unrest and international isolation eventually wore down the White minority government, and the Apartheid system collapsed in the early 1990s. This was symbolically marked by the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela from Victor Verster prison on 11 February 1990, and then by the decisive victory of the ANC-led coalition in the 27 April 1994 elections.

Building a Rainbow Nation

The ANC formally ended its conflict with the South African state following a negotiated settlement, encompassing the 1991 National Peace Accord, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA I & II), and the Multi-Party Negotiation Process. The CODESA discussions held particular importance because, just like the Lancaster House Agreement in the case of Zimbabwe, the ANC agreed on a market-based negotiated approach to the land question. Current landowners could not be summarily ordered to vacate their properties as had been done to the ancestors of Black South Africans. Rather, the approach would be based on three pillars: restitution (involving the courts restoring land to individuals who held freehold titles at the time they were evicted from their land), redistribution (a World Bank-recommended method that entailed purchasing land from willing Whites on a “willing buyer, willing seller” basis and then redistributing it to Black people), and tenure reform (which aimed to change tenure patterns to recognize customary commonage and other forms of land ownership practised by Blacks).

The Bekezela settlement in Newtown, Johannesburg faces potential eviction despite being home to a diverse community of immigrants and South Africans, some residing there since 1998. Photo: Jodi Bieber

When it came to the private sector, the World Bank and other partners urged the ANC to preserve the core mining, manufacturing, retail, and service businesses in the country. Instead of advocating for ownership, they recommended diversity, equity, and inclusion schemes to empower Blacks. The ANC soon settled on an empowerment programme known as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), which was quickly introduced in the mining, agriculture, manufacturing, and service sectors. BEE aimed to give Black South Africans a foot in the door, either through cash contributions for a minority stake or by recognizing their contributions in the form of goodwill.

Many liberation parties in Southern Africa, which secured victories in elections based on socialist policies, have frequently encountered the challenge that governance requires a distinct skill set, one not always in abundant supply within their ranks. A first generation of capable leaders may lay out a promising master plan, only to be impeded by a second generation of cadres who lack both the necessary skills and the ideological fervour of their predecessors. Importantly, too, the second generation is generally not as committed to the national agenda as the liberation generation, prioritizing instead self-actualization. This pattern seems to have played out right across Southern Africa, evident in Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front — ZANU–PF), Tanzania (Chama Cha Mapinduzi — CCM), Mozambique (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique — FRELIMO), Namibia (South West African People’s Organisation — SWAPO), and Angola (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola — UNITA).

After centuries of brutal dispossession and racism, the task of bringing together all of South Africa’s diverse groups under one flag was never going to be easy. In 1994, South Africa was coming out of a multi-year recession. The country faced a formidable set of challenges including a high debt-to-GDP ratio (63 percent), multiple strikes by unions, a sharp increase of unskilled workers in the labour force, large outflows of capital, a strong anti-South Africa sentiment in export markets, and a daunting unemployment crisis, with almost 30 percent of all employable adults out of work (South African Reserve Bank, 1994). In his seminal “Two Nations” speech, sometimes synonymously referred to as the “Two Economies” speech, delivered to the national assembly on 29 May 1998, on the theme of “reconciliation and nation building”, former President Thabo Mbeki vividly described the chasm that existed between White and Black South Africans as follows:

We therefore make bold to say that South Africa is a country of two nations.

One of these nations is White, relatively prosperous, regardless of gender or geographic dispersal. It has ready access to a developed economic, physical, educational, communication, and other infrastructure. This enables it to argue that, except for the persistence of gender discrimination against women, all members of this nation have the possibility to exercise their right to equal opportunity, the development opportunities to which the Constitution of ‘93 committed our country.

The second and larger nation of South Africa is Black and poor, with the worst affected being women in the rural areas, the Black rural population in general and the disabled. This nation lives under conditions of a grossly underdeveloped economic, physical, educational, communication, and other infrastructure. It has virtually no possibility to exercise what in reality amounts to a theoretical right to equal opportunity, with that right being equal within this Black nation only to the extent that it is equally incapable of realization.

This reality of two nations, underwritten by the perpetuation of the racial, gender, and spatial disparities born of a very long period of colonial and apartheid White minority domination, constitutes the material base which reinforces the notion that, indeed, we are not one nation, but two nations.

And neither are we becoming one nation. Consequently, also, the objective of national reconciliation is not being realized. This follows as well that the longer this situation persists, in spite of the gift of hope delivered to the people by the birth of democracy, the more entrenched will be the conviction that the concept of nation building is a mere mirage and that no basis exists, or will ever exist, to enable national reconciliation to take place.

President Mbeki emphasized in his speech that bridging the gap would take time. The speech also underscored the pressing need for immediate action to alleviate the suffering of the Black majority. Repairing a broken country like South Africa necessitated an almost faultless run of wins by the government and its partners over decades. However, in terms of meaningfully closing the gap post-1994, we can identify two key periods: the years of major, consequential transformation under Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, and the less impactful decade under the presidencies of Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa.

Nelson Mandela skilfully guided South Africa through turbulent times, including the assassination of the wildly popular South Africa Communist Party (SACP) leader Chris Hani. He managed to bring together disparate interests, some of which remained in open rebellion or confrontation for a very long time (such as Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party and Constand Viljoen). His greatest achievement, of course, was convincing the Blacks who wanted to expropriate all White-owned property with immediate effect and the Whites who were ready to use the power of the gun to remain in power to unite behind a shared vision — “the rainbow nation”. When he stepped onto to the field at Ellis Park stadium on 25 June 1995 for the Rugby World Cup finals wearing Francois Pienaar’s number six jersey (rugby was regarded as the oppressor’s sport at the time) and rallied South Africa to victory over New Zealand, Black and White people hugged each other, shed tears of joy, and saw the humanity in each other for perhaps the first time. It was the birth of a new nation, the coming together of all races.

Whereas Nelson Mandela had taught South Africans to live together and love each other, it would fall on the hardworking, aloof, and pragmatic Thabo Mbeki to do the real work of building a modern economy.

Those hugs remain deeply significant to this day. Mandela launched the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), laying the groundwork for transformation. RDP had a strong redistributive agenda (in terms of land, houses, and businesses) but there was not enough money in the country to move with the kind of speed that the ANC wanted on key priorities. Priorities like land reform, skills development for Black workers, and the provision of quality, affordable housing received only modest cash injections from the national budget. Importantly, too, Mandela honoured his election promise and only served one term in office.

Whereas Nelson Mandela had taught South Africans to live together and love each other (with the help of Archbishop Desmond Tutu), it would fall on the hardworking, aloof, and pragmatic Thabo Mbeki to do the real work of building a modern economy. Mbeki had one of the most consequential presidencies in modern African history, even if it was marred by xenophobic attacks and the poor management of the HIV/AIDS pandemic (Adebajo, 2016). The ANC’s initiatives such as the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR), and even the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative in South Africa (ASGISA) were all aimed at directing transformation efforts through a different lens: trickle-down economics.

Under Mbeki’s leadership, the economy grew steadily at an average of 4.2 percent, with inflation generally hovering around 5.7 percent. Unemployment dropped from 30 percent to 19 percent. At least 3 million RDP houses were built to meet the rising demand for affordable housing. With the growth of the economy, the Black middle class witnessed its biggest increase, more than doubling from 2.2 million to 5.4 million people between 1993 and 2008 (Zwane, 2019). Mbeki (and Minister Zola Skweyiya) created a national social security programme and by the end of his tenure, at least 15 million South Africans were receiving various government grants. Despite Mbeki’s many successes, the ANC’s alliance partners, including the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), felt that neoliberalism was stalling the transformation process. However, Mbeki stubbornly forged on with his hyper-presidential, dirigiste policies.   

An event that initially seemed insignificant towards the end of Mbeki’s term but would later have devastating consequences for South Africa’s development starting in 2019 occurred one year before Mbeki left office: the country experienced its first episode of load shedding. The World Bank had argued for many years that the government should not get involved in power generation, contrary to the wishes of then ESKOM Board Chairperson Reuel Khoza. It believed that this function was best left in the hands of the private sector. Mbeki heeded the World Bank’s advice at first. However, under pressure from the ANC’s alliance partners (COSATU and SACP) and other cabinet members, he reversed course and announced the construction of two massive coal power stations (Medupi and Kusile) to generate 9,600MW of electricity. 

Despite a wave of attacks against immigrants — during which Mozambican national Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave was beaten up and then set alight in full view of passers-by and journalists on 18 May 2008 — President Mbeki steadfastly insisted that South Africa did not have a xenophobia problem. His refusal to address the issue decisively cast a shadow on South Africa’s relations with the rest of the African continent. HIV/AIDS politics also haunted Mbeki for almost the entirety of his tenure. There was a lot of stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS in the early 2000s, and the government felt that agreeing to a mass rollout of ARVs would be perceived as an acknowledgement that South Africans were more sexually irresponsible than citizens of other countries (Adebajo, 2016). After a prolonged effort by groups like the Treatment Action Campaign, Nkosi’s Haven, and others, Mbeki reversed course and set up one of the biggest antiretroviral programmes in the world. 

Abroad, Thabo Mbeki spearheaded a breathtaking number of projects. He worked with Presidents like Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria to transform the Organisation of African Unity into the African Union. The union expanded the bureaucracy to deal with the growing political and policy demands of an increasingly interconnected continent. Another key change was that African countries could now interfere in their neighbours’ affairs in cases where the national government was deemed responsible for severe human rights abuses.

Mbeki also spearheaded the creation of the New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), providing African nations with the tools to gauge each other’s performance. Additionally, he led the Non-Aligned movement, set up outreach programmes for the African diaspora in the Americas, organized the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and negotiated South Africa’s entry into the intergovernmental organization BRIC (comprising Brazil, Russia, India, and China), which later became BRICS. A number of diplomatic efforts were engaged to foster peace in areas of conflict, including Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Liberia, and Sudan. South Africa emerged as the single biggest foreign investor on the African continent, epitomized by what was dubbed the “Shoprite revolution”, as the supermarket expanded its presence to over 16 countries on the continent. Similarly, MTN’s call, data, and mobile money services were expanded to over 22 African countries, and DStv (a South African direct broadcast satellite service) was made available in 50 African countries.  

On 20 September 2008, President Thabo Mbeki was ousted from office — or “recalled”, as the ANC put it — by Jacob Zuma’s supporters after he lost the presidency of the ANC during the 2007 Polokwane elective conference. Kgalema Mohlanthe served as the interim President for a brief period until Jacob Zuma took office in May 2009. Mbeki’s removal was accompanied by a mass exodus of experienced party members. This episode, together with the 2008 global economic crisis, had a devastating impact on the South African economy. Moreover, it did not help that many who filled the void left by seasoned “Mbeki-ites” were opportunists with an eye on lucrative government tenders.

Jacob Zuma’s presidency was characterized by scandals from the so-called “tenderpreneurs”[3], including the notorious Gupta brothers, who hollowed out and then looted a number of key parastatals, including the South African Revenue Services (SARS), the national power utility ESKOM, and South African Airways. This dark episode of state capture in South Africa’s history is documented in the Zondo Commission reports. Under Zuma, the South African economy went into recession, and credit rating agencies Standard & Poor and Fitch downgraded the country’s rating to junk status. Former President Thabo Mbeki has described Jacob Zuma as a counterrevolutionary who presided over the ANC’s worst period at the helm.

A student-led movement swept through South African universities, beginning in late 2015. The “Fees Must Fall” campaign, as it came to be known, called for the abolition of student fees. The campaign dominated headlines for many weeks, and garnered widespread public support. However, people started losing patience with students when stores were looted in certain areas. Some overzealous protesters aggressively confronted well-respected university leaders, which was poorly received by the public. The government announced a suspension of fees for the following academic year and the protests petered out.

By any standards, some of the ANC’s achievements are unprecedented in Africa, both in terms of the scope and scale of the changes as well as the time frame in which they were realized.

To address the worsening electricity shortages, Jacob Zuma negotiated a deal with Vladimir Putin’s Russia for ROSATOM to build a 9,600-megawatt nuclear facility in South Africa. However, the secretive manner in which the deal had been negotiated meant that critical procurement processes were skipped. A Russian journalist exposed the deal to South African NGOs, prompting a major anti-nuclear campaign that did significant reputational damage to the Zuma administration. The Western Cape High Court later ruled that the deal was illegal. After this debacle, the Zuma government decided to run the country’s coal fleet with almost no down time for maintenance.

Cyril Ramaphosa inherited a full-blown power crisis when he came to power in February 2018. His first term was punctuated by frequent debilitating power outages. What began as just a few days of load shedding in 2007 escalated to over 200 days in 2022 and almost every day in 2023. President Ramaphosa has since lifted all restrictions on power generation and all those who are willing and able can become power producers. Between 2019 and 2023, independent power producers and South African households installed over 12,000MW of green energy. More than two years of physical distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic had a devastating impact on the economy, and South Africans are eagerly anticipating significant changes during Ramaphosa’s second term. Beyond fixing the energy crisis, South Africans also expect him to resolve the land issue, reduce unemployment, solve the logistics problem at TRANSNET, and find lasting solutions to the country’s inequality issues.

The Limits of Fiscal Conservatism and Trickle-down Policies

Successive ANC governments were convinced that trickle-down policies would lift the majority of South Africans out of poverty, especially during the Mbeki years. That is what led them to adopt policies like GEAR, which emphasized fiscal conservatism through deregulation, free market trade, inflation targeting, and debt management. The idea was that as Black people gained education and then employment, they would uplift their children and dependents, thus perpetuating a cycle that would effectively trickle down the benefits of a robust economy. However, the biggest beneficiaries of transformation were White-owned corporations that, despite experiencing unprecedented growth, still resisted transformation efforts. Trade unions, especially the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), argued that this amounted to a major betrayal of the people’s aspirations by the ANC. This is one of the key reasons why COSATU Secretary-General Zwelinzima Vavi allied with Jacob Zuma to oust Mbeki from power in 2007. Moeletsi Mbeki (2009) has criticized the ANC under his brother Thabo and others, describing them as “architects of poverty”.

South Africa’s failure to transform is not just a consequence of the ANC’s shortcomings or oversights. It is also undoubtedly a consequence of stiff resistance from the private sector and the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), whose ideology revolves around the notion of picking oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Both of these entities, which are obviously predominantly White, believe that the solution to South Africa’s problems is creating a citizenry that is self-sufficient. They view giving social grants to the poor as mere tokenism, akin to favouritism or vote buying. In economic as well as in other issues like education and energy supply, DA-led Western Cape has acted as if it were a separate country. The DA has actively worked against nation building and indeed former Western Cape Premier and DA Chairperson, Hellen Zille, called internal migrants from the Eastern Cape Province “refugees” in 2012. Zille was fully aware of the toxic political and economic connotations attached to the word when she uttered them. At the height of the energy crisis, DA politicians even suggested that the rest of the country should be cut off from Koeberg so that it solely benefits Western Cape.     

South Africa Today: Still a Country of Two Economies  

The Good

Although a lot has been said about the ANC’s performance since it took over power in 1994, its 30-year tenure at the helm has yielded important advances for the Black majority. By any standards, some of the ANC’s achievements are unprecedented in Africa, both in terms of the scope and scale of the changes as well as the time frame in which they were realized. For those who still bear a disproportionate burden of poverty, inequality, and unemployment, however, there is little to celebrate. That being said, it is essential to take a look at the progress that has been made in order to gain a comprehensive perspective.

South Africa’s most significant achievement under Black majority rule is, undoubtedly, the establishment of a new social contract that still has the overwhelming support of a majority of the people. Here, we not only have systems in place but, more importantly, systems that function effectively most of the time. The national project was born out of the December 1996 constitution and is based on the values of human dignity, non-racialism, and non-sexism, as well as the supremacy of the constitution, the rule of law, and universal adult suffrage. These principles are upheld through a national common voter’s roll, regular elections, and a multi-party system of democratic governance. The constitution further guarantees the right to a healthy, unharmed planet and equal access to the country’s rivers, lakes, forests, velds (grasslands), and parks.

Photo: Jodi Bieber

Since the beginning of the democratic era following the historic elections of 26 and 29 April 1994, South Africa has had five presidents: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, and Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa. None of them has tried to modify the constitution in order to remain in power indefinitely, as has happened in other African countries. For instance, former President Jacob Zuma voluntarily stepped down from office after a report published by the National Protector determined that the South African state had been captured by a number of corrupt individuals and entities. Simply put, that is unprecedented on the African continent.

The national parliament has 46 percent female representation, placing South Africa among the world leaders in gender equality in legislative bodies. Furthermore, South Africa operates under a truly decentralized system of government, consisting of three tiers: national, provincial, and local. More recently, the national government has been allocated 48.6 percent of nationally raised funds, with 41.5 percent going to provincial governments and 10 percent going to local government. With such a significant share of the national budget, provincial premiers wield considerable power, and there is healthy competition among them. The Gauteng premier, Panyaza Lesufi, oversees an economy almost equivalent in size to that of Morocco’s.

With the consolidation of the social contract, the ANC government has overseen major advances over the past three decades. When the ANC came to power, access to potable water for Black families was almost non-existent. Today, it stands at over 88 percent, although recent episodes of drought and corruption mean that the taps remain dry for days at a time in some parts of the country. The electricity penetration rate in Black communities was at 36 percent in 1994. Today, it has reached 94 percent. Bantu education has been replaced by an education system that seeks to equip young Black learners with the skills needed to succeed in today’s society. More Black students are going to university than ever before, thanks to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) that offers scholarships to the majority of learners who complete their secondary education every year. At least 4.7 million RDP houses have been built for the poor, and President Cyril Ramaphosa recently announced that another 4,188 would be constructed in the Northern Cape. What is more, South Africa has the tenth most extensive paved road network in the world.

South Africa stands as Africa’s leading economy, boasting a robust manufacturing and services sector. Renowned as one of the world’s top exporters of fruit and wine, it also holds the title of the biggest energy producer on the continent, with a nominal capacity of 52,000 megawatts. South Africa also leads in terms of green energy, with 6,200 megawatts generated by ESKOM and IPPs, and another 6,000 megawatts by homeowners. With abundant electricity and technical know-how, the country has become a major manufacturer of automobiles, steel, heavy machinery, and consumer goods. It was the first African country to build a high-speed rail network, the Gautrain, which Thabo Mbeki identified as key to hosting the FIFA 2010 World Cup.

Many urban parts of South Africa closely resemble metropolises in the Global North. In fact, if you were to move from a residential area like Sandton in Johannesburg, directly to London or Los Angeles, the first obvious change that you would pick up would probably be the wall sockets rather than the level of infrastructure. In these areas, virtually every aspect — from streets, apartment buildings, and restaurants to businesses and billboards — exudes a comparable level of modernity. The internet is great, the streets are well-maintained, the houses are even better than in many parts of the Global North, the lawns are immaculate, the schools offer world-class education, and for young people, the sky is the limit in terms of what they can achieve. In fact, in certain respects, one can say that South Africa is more advanced than some countries in the Global North. Whereas South Africans can open a bank account in one day and enjoy the freedom of transferring money from one account to another on their digital banking platforms, customers in the United States still struggle with cumbersome chequebooks, and Germans often still have to wait for up to a month to open a bank account.

Black South Africans now represent the biggest share of the country’s middle class, the majority of university graduates, the overwhelming majority of the public sector’s 1.2 million workers, the majority of the private sector’s 14.3 million staff, and the overwhelming majority of private sector workers and homeowners. However, there is a significant disparity to note here: while the average salary for a middle class Black person is 22,000 rand, it is 100,000 rand for a White person. The average value of a White middle class household is 4.7 million rand, whereas for Blacks, it is 1.7 million. Unfortunately, much of the wealth ends up in urban areas, making them seem almost entirely disconnected from the rest of the country.

The Bad: A Significant Wealth Gap Remains

The contrast between urban and rural areas in South Africa is stark. Drive around any small town in South Africa and you will get a sense that many of them are frozen in time. The data on inequality paints a brutal picture. While urban South Africa has grown exponentially, rural South Africa is still dominated by Apartheid geography. For many, escaping poverty seems like an unattainable dream. Whites still own the land, the thriving businesses, and the big mansions, while Blacks still live in shacks, wait tables, or work labour-intensive jobs on farms and in mines. This part of the country stands as a stark contrast to the envisioned unity of the rainbow nation.

Thabo Mbeki’s nation of two economies now manifests as urban versus rural. Peri-urban areas are still dominated by overcrowded townships, where most working class people live. The dormitory towns, remnants of the Apartheid-era labour system, have undergone some improvements, now featuring neat rows of formal housing. However, these are slowly being surrounded and swallowed up by the shacks of an ever-growing number of desperate people. Think Alexandra, the dormitory shantytown for Sandton, South Africa’s financial centre. Think Shoshanguve, the cheap labour reservoir for Pretoria. Think Khayelitsha, from where impoverished children can see the shiny buildings and immaculate lawns of gated communities in Cape Town’s city centre. Even three decades into Black majority rule, every metropolitan area still has a major, predominantly Black township next to it.

South Africa is officially the most unequal country in the world, boasting a staggering GINI coefficient of 63. When we look even closer at the statistics, the land Gini coefficient of Limpopo province is 0.93 percent, the highest in the country and among the highest in the world (Hannah Redders, 2021). Speaking at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2021, Thomas Picketty said that the top 10 percent of South Africans own more wealth than 85 percent of the country’s households. According to the World Inequality Lab, the wealthiest 3,500 people in South Africa own more wealth than the combined total of the bottom 32 million people. Income inequality per capita is twice as high in so-called rural provinces like Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Eastern Cape, North West, and Northern Cape.

According to Statistics South Africa, there are over 8 million unemployed people in the country, and of those, 6.1 million are long-term unemployed (STATSSA 2023). In terms of where the poor live, the data shows that the majority are based in Mpumalanga, Limpopo, North West, and Eastern Cape where the average unemployment rate is 40 percent. The bulk of South Africa’s economic activity is concentrated in Gauteng (33 percent), KwaZulu Natal (15 percent), and Western Cape (14 percent).

Statistics South Africa’s 2021 “General Household Survey” shows that grants constitute the second most significant source of income (51.0 percent) for households after salaries (59.4 percent). These statistics are even more striking in provinces like the Free State (where 60.0 percent of the population rely on grants), Eastern Cape (where 63.7 percent of the population rely on grants), Limpopo (where 65.7 percent of the population rely on grants), and Mpumalanga (where 66.2 percent of the population rely on grants). Grants are the main source of income for households in Eastern Cape (42.0 percent) and Limpopo (35.2 percent) (STATSSA, 2021). At least 85 percent of South Africans farm to secure an additional source of food, while a further four percent rely entirely on agriculture for all their food needs (STATSSA 2021:54). It is only in Gauteng and Western Cape where a majority of the people who practise agriculture do so as a leisure activity.

The land question remains unresolved, and continues to breed significant tension between White and Black South Africans.

A recent study by Amnesty International revealed that the majority of students in rural provinces aged nine cannot read for meaning. Many teachers are tasked with instructing learners whose first language differs from the language of instruction. Apartheid geography is still a strong driver of success, with the top 200 schools consistently outperforming the remaining 6,600. The Amnesty International report cites government data for 2018, indicating that out of 23,471 public schools, 19 percent solely relied on illegal pit latrines (outhouses) for sanitation (37 schools had no sanitation facilities whatsoever). What is more, 86 percent lacked laboratory facilities, 77 percent lacked library facilities, 72 percent lacked internet access (239 schools lacked electricity), and 42 percent lacked sports facilities. Additionally, 56 percent faced physical infrastructure shortages, and 70 percent reported insufficient library materials – a stark contrast compared to the OECD average of 16 percent.

The economic challenges plaguing South Africa’s rural areas are by their very nature emotive topics. Although rural South Africa boasts considerable wealth and the country’s economic model still largely depends on commodities sourced from the countryside, valuable resources invariably end up in metropolitan areas or abroad. The key experts who negotiate the sale of their commodities also live elsewhere. The electricity produced in Mpumalanga is distributed throughout the entire country, yet many residents of the province endure dire living conditions. It is a similar story in the Cape Winelands, where most of the country’s wine is produced, Limpopo, known for its citrus production, as well as Free State, where corn is cultivated. Those who produce all the commodities that make South Africa rich live in abject poverty.

In some regions, there is no potable water or electricity. Children lack adequate libraries, playgrounds, and well-equipped laboratories comparable to those found in urban areas. Often they live in areas where the only economic ventures are mines, large-scale commercial farms, or lodges, and there are limited alternative economic activities. Grandparents often use their grants to feed their grandchildren and pay their school fees. For such families, education is the only way out of poverty. Like President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his “Letter to the Nation” on 22 January 2024, “In 2023, matriculants who receive some form of social grant together achieved more than 160,000 distinctions, and more than 200,000 qualified for university entrance. Learners from no-fee paying schools constituted more than 65 percent of the total bachelor passes obtained”. That says a lot.

The success of some learners should not mask the challenges that many young people, especially girls, face in rural areas. In 2016, South Africa recorded about 114,000 teenage pregnancies. This figure increased by almost 50 percent between 2017 and 2021 (Barron et al, 2022). According to Statistics South Africa (2022), a total of 129,223 adolescent births were recorded in public health facilities during the 2021/22 period. Most of these births occurred in rural provinces, where young girls are often enticed by the money offered to them by so-called AmaBlessers (“sugar daddies”). Many of these young people either live in single-parent households, where the breadwinner is away at work all day, or are under the care of their grandparents while their parents work in the city. Needless to say, AmaBlessers are also responsible for a high proportion of HIV/AIDS cases. Some customary practices exacerbate the situation. Young girls are also lured into early marriages, known in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal as Ukuthwalwa. Due to their young age, they fall prey to gender-based violence and other types of abuse. Fortunately, programmes launched by the South African government, NGOs, and initiatives such as the United States’ PEPFAR programme have significantly reduced the spread of HIV. The virus is no longer considered a taboo, and antiretrovirals, PrEP, and PEP are available in most clinics.

Job opportunities in rural areas in South Africa are few and far between. It is common to see groups of strong, able-bodied, young people standing around, waiting for a piece job. There are not that many options. The few people who have employment have to pay what is known as “Black tax”. This means that they have to spend a big chunk of their salaries supporting other members of their extended family. For every Black person who succeeds, there is a long list of children whose school fees they have to pay, and sometimes they have to purchase groceries for the family at the end of every month.

The Land Question: Still a Source of Anger and Division

The land question remains unresolved, and continues to breed significant tension between White and Black South Africans. Land for many people represents a lodestar, an anchor, and a homeland where ancestors are buried. It is where communities forge unity and draw strength, projecting outward to conquer the world or returning to rebuild strength. Land is therefore more than just an asset. Land represents identity. Importantly, in the case of South Africa, it is an unofficial indicator of progress toward rectifying the wrongs of the Apartheid era. Many Blacks lack access to land, often resorting to “squatting” on farms where they endure various forms of abuse. Farmworkers are charged a monthly fee for installing a shack on White farm owners’ land.

During Apartheid, the “Dop System” was very popular in South African wine farms. Instead of giving workers their full pay, farmers often compensated them with cheap wine. This gave rise to serious addiction for many, and led to children being born with foetal alcohol syndrome. A farmer who resisted their master’s abusive behaviour would be summarily ordered to vacate the farm. Summary evictions were stopped through the “Extension of Security of Tenure Act 62 of 1997”. After the act was passed, White farmers quietly evicted the remaining workers from their farms and stopped allowing new ones to settle, exacerbating the housing crisis and resulting in more shacks and informal settlements.

In 1994, the ANC promised to transfer 30 percent of the 87 million hectares of fertile land to Blacks by 2000, but by 2019, only 10 million hectares had changed hands. To achieve this ambition, they launched a series of programmes, including the Settlement and Land Acquisition Grant (launched in 1995), the Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development programme (launched in 2001), and the Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy (launched in 2006). Alongside these initiatives, legislation such as the “Extension of Security of Tenure Act 62 of 1997” and the “Prevention of Illegal Occupation of Land Act of 1998”, as well as court proceedings, have contributed to advancing the restitution and tenure reform agenda.

Undercapitalized by the “willing buyer, willing seller” programme, land reform has advanced at a snail’s pace. The government has also too often let the private sector dictate conversations about land. Whenever there has been an indication that the ANC would deviate from the “willing buyer, willing seller” approach, Agriculture South Africa (Agri-SA), the biggest farmers’ union in the country, has mounted media campaigns alleging discrimination and warning of potential hunger and starvation in South Africa. Similarly, pressure groups like AFRIFORUM stir up controversy, arguing that Black people are lazy and are simply looking for handouts. They even appear on major news channels in the Global North like Fox News, alleging an ongoing genocide against White South Africans.

Another reason for the slow pace of land reform is that the South African government narrowly focuses on replacing White commercial farmers with a similar number of Black ones (Ngam, 2021). Essentially, every time a farm has been bought from a White farmer, every effort has been made to get the Black beneficiary to transform the plot of land into a thriving farm, even when the beneficiary is someone who has never managed a large-scale commercial farm before. These farms are typically sizeable, averaging around 1,640 hectares on average. Land reform is usually based on transferring plots of exact dimensions from Whites to Blacks. When one considers that in 1994, there were only 120,000 White commercial farmers, it becomes evident that without a shift towards subdividing farm land, hundreds of thousands of Blacks are going to be left disappointed for a very long time.

Agri-SA’s arguments are also dated. Mechanization and consolidation has shrunk the number of commercial farmers to just over 37,000. That leaves significant room for manoeuvre for the government to launch ambitious reform projects. As far as restitution is concerned, even when Blacks can prove that they were evicted from a plot for which they had a freehold title, litigation often takes years. In certain cases, some of these cases can go on for decades, as former Lands Claim Court judge Tembeka Ngcukaitobi recently explained in a public lecture.

Three dimensions of the national question are placing greater urgency on the land question. The first one is poverty. Recent data shows that half the country cannot afford to buy food on a regular basis. Thriving farms are often targeted by gangs, because they represent the primary economic activity within a large area. Owners of large estates do not need to work their land to make it productive. The farms where urban dwellers go to hike typically belong to White landowners. Owners of popular hiking trails can make up to R300,000 per weekend. Opportunistic crimes are only going to grow if people are unable to feed themselves.

The second dimension is the climate crisis. South Africa is a water-stressed country. Paradoxically, it is also the twelfth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world (largely due to its coal power fleet) and the biggest exporter of agricultural commodities on the African continent. The large-scale commercial farms that dominate South African agriculture use up more than 60 percent of the country’s available water. They tend to employ many workers who are furloughed whenever there is a drought episode. This was the case in the 2010s, when a multi-year drought caused at least 14,000 people to lose their jobs. Many of the furloughed workers ended up in informal settlements in urban areas.

The single most important priority is fixing South Africa’s municipalities and making them fit for purpose.

The third is a troubling deterioration of race relations. Farm murders have become a hot topic in the country because the victims are often White. This has led to some White political parties and pressure groups like AFRIFORUM to claim that there is a genocide taking place against White farmers, even though Blacks are still the victims of the majority of violent murders. Attacks perpetrated against Whites are more publicised because they represent a minority. Every election cycle, provocateurs use land-related talking points to stoke racial tensions, pushing South Africa to the brink. We saw this following the very brutal murder of young farm manager Brendin Horner, when skirmishes between Blacks and Whites almost resulted in a shootout on the streets of the sleepy town of Senekal. Similar episodes played out again in the town of Piet Retief in late April 2021, when four White farmers appeared in the magistrate’s court following the murders of two job seekers.

A new phenomenon that is causing concern among Blacks in rural areas is in fact instigated by members of their own community, particularly the emerging Black elite and those within the political class. Drive past any rural area today and you will see imposing ten- to twenty-bedroom houses amidst huts and rundown shacks. These are the palaces of the nouveau riche, the emerging Black bourgeoisie: government workers, politicians, “tenderpreneurs”, and corporate executives who work in faraway cities. These expensive mansions fuel resentment among locals, especially when the owners are individuals who come from humble beginnings within the community. In parts of the country, this trend has sparked a rise in targeted killings. Municipal councillors, for example, make a lot of money not just through their seat in the local council, but also from the kickbacks they get from voting one way or another during the elective conferences of political parties.

For some people, the quickest way to make money in rural areas is to “take out” the municipal councillor, or even the mayor. At least 3,000 politicians have been assassinated since 2010. The palatial homes of private sector workers further encourage young people to migrate to urban centres and make money quickly.

Bridging the Gap: Solving South Africa’s Rural Poverty Problem

Transforming South Africa has largely become a project of the national government alone, since White South Africa often attributes its success solely to hard work and determination, disregarding the systemic inequalities rooted in the country’s history. Yet the injustices persist, protected by law. The comments sections of White media often perpetuate the pervasive myth that Black people are lazy and corrupt, and want everything for free. But this overlooks the fact that Blacks built everything in South Africa and dug out all the mineral resources that built the New York of the South (Johannesburg), Cape Town, and everything in between. Be that as it may, what can the South African government change in order to build a more inclusive economy? In “Thabo Mbeki”, Adebajo (2016) argues that GEAR tried too hard to be nice to White capital because doing so was, by extension, a way to bring in foreign investors. There is no doubt that a new and more urgent transformation approach is necessary. One potential solution could be to develop a Marshall Plan-like initiative to turbo-charge the reinvention of rural South Africa.

The single most important priority is fixing South Africa’s municipalities and making them fit for purpose. The budgets of municipalities have become the kitty of “tenderpreneurs”, rent seekers, and never-retire ANC cadre who live at taxpayers’ expense. It is perhaps no surprise then, that municipal councillors have become prime targets for hired assassins. South Africa has three tiers of government: national, provincial, and local. The national government is responsible for only 48 percent of the budget, and the remainder goes to provincial and local governments. However, decentralization has led to issues, particularly at the provincial and local levels, where there is a long history of corruption and incompetence. The 2021/22 financial audit revealed that only 38 out of 257 municipalities and only two out of 8 metros produced clean audits. The State of Local Government Report for the same period indicated that 64 out of 257 municipalities across the South Africa were dysfunctional. Poor leadership generates an average of 300 service delivery protests every year. Makana municipality has become the poster child of dysfunction at local level. In January 2020, the Makhanda High Court ordered the dissolution of the Makana Municipal Council for failure to fulfil its constitutional duties. Municipalities should be able to run schools, hospitals, security services, parks, community halls, and libraries well.

Foto: Jodi Bieber

Improving municipalities can pave the way for addressing the second most important issue: universal basic infrastructure. South Africa’s two nations problem persists in part because its rural areas lack the infrastructure that people in large cities have in abundance. This includes basic necessities like bandwidth, schools, mobile connectivity, water, electricity, healthcare, civil status register, land, quality affordable housing, entertainment, public spaces, and security. These assets are a necessary step to producing the quality of citizenry and industry that the rural areas require to take off. Failure to provide these services means that over three decades into the democratic era, Apartheid geography and inherited redlining policies continue to exist. The government must invest significant amounts of money to ensure that Black rural citizens get the quality education and support that they need, not just to be able to go and find employment elsewhere, but to live and transform their own communities.

At the same time, the government should explore the possibility of doubling the grants that are offered to Blacks. President Ramaphosa hinted at such a possibility during his 2023 State of the Nation Address, but he has yet to take action in this regard. There is an ongoing debate about introducing a Universal Basic Income Grant in South Africa. While the contours of that debate are still being explored, why not start by doubling grants? Doubling grants would significantly increase the amount of money that goes into feeding and educating Black children. It would also help people to access better infrastructure, thereby enhancing their overall quality of life.

At least 3.2 million South Africans in the rural provinces practice some form of agriculture to supplement their food, but they often lack land to do more. This highlights the need for the land reform process to encompass more than just providing land for commercial purposes. A key intervention would be limiting land plots to between two and ten hectares, and promptly handing them over to Black beneficiaries, together with some form of capital or tools to use to put the land to use. Land and start-up capital are key. Having very carefully planned technical training and resource transfer backed by significant capital is valuable, but this would take forever to accomplish. Beneficiaries gain from starting with what they have and diving into the deep end – if they have something to start with. This is similar to what Zimbabwe’s small-scale tobacco farmers did during Operation Fast Track in the early 2000s.

Education needs to improve significantly. South Africa’s universities often lament the influx of matriculants from the secondary cycle who cannot keep up with the demands of tertiary education. This creates a backlog of students repeating courses, as former Statistician General Pali Lehotla once argued during the Fees Must Fall campaign. While he was still in office, Lehotla oversaw an audit that uncovered over 400,000 students who were trapped in the university system, but who still needed NSFAS funds to continue their studies. He told parliament: “The truth of the matter is that we have (close to) a million students, so we’re spending money on students who do not succeed, who do not finish… We have 300,000 people in the (higher education) system who should not be there, who are not succeeding to finish… There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that they don’t have the money to take them through their studies and therefore they can’t go through.”

Following years of trickle-down economics, it is time to devise a focused and well-funded initiative tailored specifically to rural areas, backed by substantial funding and rigorous oversight.

Two new Universities have recently been built in South Africa: Sol Plaatjie University in Kimberley and the University of Mpumalanga. Additionally, plans are in place for two more universities in Hammanskraal and Ekurhuleni. Although there is a strong desire amongst Blacks to get a university education, a necessary route to a white-collar job, the South African economy has shown that the number of job openings is narrowing every year. In contrast, there is a massive shortage of skilled artisans, including electricians, plumbers, builders, welders, IT technicians, web developers, and chefs. This reflects a wider problem in Africa, where universities were initially positioned as institutions where the country’s white-collar elite would be trained. However, as economies grew and urbanization picked up pace, little was done to change this paradigm. The irony in South Africa’s case is that unemployed Black South Africans often have to hire migrants from neighbouring countries to fix wiring and plumbing issues in their homes. Highlighting this reality is a popular TikTok video featuring a Mozambican handyman who can fix anything around the house, from burst pipes and broken tiles to geysers. To address this disparity, it is crucial to invest more resources into Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges so that they are able to offer more young people practical skills.

Finally, incubation centres need to be set up in rural areas where Blacks can be given the opportunity to apply their knowledge. These incubation centres should encompass all growing sectors crucial to the South African economy, including green energy, IT, agriculture, and tourism. By creating hundreds of solar and windmill incubation centres around South Africa, for example, the government can help Blacks bridge the emerging gap in this key industry. The fact that just three years into South Africa’s renewable energy boom, the overwhelming majority of renewable capacity is owned by Whites, speaks volumes. It is also a sign that if serious interventions are not implemented, the same results are going to keep emerging. Elsewhere, young Black farmers could be given the resources to run small farms, handle transport logistics, and access local markets and supermarkets. Efforts must also be made to link governments’ and municipalities’ purchasing power to new companies originating from such incubation sites. Some preferential supply chains have emerged in recent years, but most of them are based in urban areas. Reaching out to rural areas is crucial for equitable wealth distribution.


Thabo Mbeki has quoted the American poet Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem” in several addresses to Parliament:

What happens to a dream deferred?


Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

The dream of power to the people and equal opportunities for all has not really materialized in South Africa. In some instances, it festers, and in others, it stinks, echoing the sentiments of Langston Hughes’s poem. Too many people have waited far too long to share in the country’s wealth.

Following years of trickle-down economics, it is time to devise a focused and well-funded initiative tailored specifically to rural areas, backed by substantial funding and rigorous oversight. If this is not done, the gulf between Black and White South Africa shall continue to widen. The July 2021 riots followed specific patterns. The primary targets were supermarkets, not bookstores, underscoring the urgent need for solutions to address food insecurity. The risk of not doing this, as Langston Hughes points out, and as Thabo Mbeki reminded the South African parliament, is that the dream explodes.

Fortunately, some capable ANC leaders, like Zamani Saul, who has attracted over 100 billion rand in green investment to the Northern Cape, and Panyaza Lesufi, who has created over 100,000 job opportunities for young Gautengers with his Nasi Ispani programme in just under a year in office, are stepping up. They are setting a good example, but a lot more needs to be done.

Proofread by Alice Naomi Rodgers for Gegensatz Translation Collective.


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[1] The poverty line is determined by Statistics South Africa using the internationally recognized cost-of-basic-needs approach.

[2] The Congress of the People is a gathering that was held in Kliptown (Gauteng Province) in South Africa on 26 June 1956, with over 3,000 delegates in attendance. It brought together a coalition of political parties (the ANC, Indian Congress, Coloured People’s Organisation, and Congress of Democrats), trade unions, civil society formations, and religious organizations. The aim was to determine a common vision for South Africa. The Congress adopted the historic Freedom Charter.

[3] In South Africa, “tenderpreneurs” are well-connected “business people” (entrepreneurs) who bid for and win most government contracts (tenders) with the help of their political contacts. The University of Western Cape defines the term as follows: “‘Tenderpreneur’ is a South African colloquialism for a businessperson who uses political contacts to secure government procurement contracts (called ‘tenders’) often as part of reciprocal exchange of favours or benefits. The term is a portmanteau of ‘tender’ (to provide business services) and ‘entrepreneur’. Today, ‘tenderpreneurs’ are associated with corruption, nepotism and clientelism. This is because the award of many tenders is driven by informal interests and/or political affiliation, rather than the requirements of formal procedure. The informality of ‘tenderpreneurship’ thus resides in these extra-legal social and political relationships.”