Racial and socioeconomic inequalities rear its ugly head during the lockdown

Umlazi township, where less fortunate people who live in different informal settlements. Picture: Motswari Mofokeng/African News Agency(ANA)

South Africa gained freedom and lost its soul in the process; Apartheid may have demoralised many South Africans.

History from time to time brings to the fore leaders who seize the moment, who cohere the wishes and aspirations of the oppressed. Such is what South Africa needs at the moment, a fitting leader of a lifetime. We may benefit greatly again from reflecting upon the role and power of consciousness, as understood by our historical icon of freedom, Steve Biko, who created a discourse in the development and shaping of the quality of a society. South Africans have succeeded admirably in putting in place policies, structures, processes and implementation procedures for the transformation and development of our country. We are widely recognised and praised for having one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. The solidity of our democratic order, with all of its democracy supporting structures and institutions, is beyond doubt. 

South Africa with its racial, socioeconomic inequalities that stretches from Western Cape to Limpopo and from KZN to Eastern Cape as well as in Gauteng. However, my concern is not to follow the train of analysis that lists the indicators of Johannesburg’s world city status. Nor do I seek to debate the opportunities or the constraints of globalisation for South Africa. Instead, I have chosen to reflect on the world city literature to extract analytical tools for reinterpreting race, socioeconomic inequality change not only in Johannesburg but in a post-democratic government period. My attention falls specifically on the utility of linking race, socioeconomic inequalities and demographic shifts to the changing patterns of the healthcare system and employment inequality within the country. 

Since the first arrival of settlers in the late 16th century, South Africa began to experience challenges such as racial, socioeconomic inequalities which were against human rights and justice. The indigenous people of this land faced atrocities and injustices.

As a country, society was structured in ways that reinforced racial inequality which has become the touchstone of social inequality in South Africa. The most recent analysis of national trends in household income shows that although inter-racial inequality has decreased over the past two decades or so, this trend has not been accompanied by any decrease in inequality among the population as a whole. Instead, figures ranging from 1975 and 2020, show that household income inequality remained very high and unchanged, hovering at a Gini coefficient of 0.68. 

South Africa has one of the highest Gini coefficients in the world, comparable with that of Brazil. In other words, although there has been a general redistribution of income from whites, on one hand, to Africans on the other, this has not affected the general pattern of household income inequality because most of the increased income which accrued to the black population has gone to the richest black households, the elites and political leaders. 

It is evident that the apartheid state was responsible for racially discriminatory policies and laws that regulated the urbanisation, education, employment, residence and political rights of black South Africans. Somewhat later, this evidence continues to rear its ugly head by the effects in socioeconomic inequalities in South Africa which continues to increasingly be driven by causes that are racial in character rather than anything else. 

This is now evident on the health care system that after the outbreak of Covid-19 and lockdown, which has further exposed its ugly face when the minority white population ran to supermarkets for panic buying and left almost every shelf empty due to the fact that they had already anticipated the lockdown and they did so because they had means, unlike their racial counterparts who are the most marginalised, the poor of the poorest of this country, and the most vulnerable people who had to wait for grant payments. To understand the structures, dynamics and mechanisms that underlie inequalities in society one must focus on how effects of race, poverty, inequality and economic imbalance interact with one another through a link between healthcare treatment inequalities and our living conditions. Evidence predominantly suggests that coronavirus has exposed how our government, over the years has failed to explicit commitment to tackle the socio-economic and healthcare infrastructural development to get rid of the inadequate public healthcare system. 

To end racial and socioeconomic inequality, we must realise that it isn’t about the rich, it’s about the poor. We know almost nothing about them and the outbreak has exposed our ignorance to that. Our government had an opportunity of 25 years to make road-building a priority in order to link up the remote areas where indigenous people live. The government had an opportunity to fix healthcare system that continues to collapse, it had an opportunity fund a state agency to build better infrastructure, better healthcare facilities, and our government had an opportunity to put in place measures for disaster management crisis for cases like coronavirus outbreak. However, our government has been busy looking after its own, namely the groups of the wealthiest and the elite white people with no disturbance including a newly co-opted elite group of black people and political elites. What government failed to do over the past 25 years was to radically implement the combination of strong and sound policies which could have tackled explicitly, to reduce poverty and socioeconomic inequalities. The government has further failed the expansion of infrastructure to rural areas that often had the effect of widening inequalities within those areas, as the majority households were better able to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by those said projects. 

Our developmental efforts have failed, we operate under the false notion that the meaning of development is confined to economic growth and technological advancement. We forget that the quality of life of the people will only improve when individual members of the community have achieved greater control of their institutions, and therefore of their social, economic and political destiny.

Therefore, I think it’s imperative that the government begin to take necessary radical and bold measures to drive itself and private sector in creating sustainable jobs, modern healthcare infrastructure, and responsive disaster facilities, as well as speeding up the process of land repossession for ownership for the majority of our people to gain access to housing, to be able to create sustainable job opportunities to address the challenges of socio-economic imbalances: which were created by the apartheid. Commitment to the future must be sealed with a mindset of ownership and responsibility, thus ensuring that those who struggled and perished to build this new country and to liberate Africa, did not sacrifice in vain. We must continue to make big strides in advocating for the inclusion of young women in all decision making organs. The government must begin to put the money where its mouth is and begin to walk the radical walk that our people yearn for in confronting challenges of unemployment, socioeconomic inequalities, income imbalances and gender-based violence, rape and abject poverty among the youth in a practical form. 

With the 25 years in power, the socio-economic imbalances continue to unravel in our society and the poor people continue to struggle as they are unable to pay for basic needs as compared to their counterpart of the white population. Hunger, lack of houses and living in poor conditions continue to be at the backdrop of our seemingly developed society, yet the poor and underprivileged are prone to disease because of malnutrition and unable to afford medical care.

With the 25 years in power, the majority of our people continue to lack access to basics such as clean drinking water, sanitation and electricity yet the regulations of the Covid-19 are saying we must wash our hands.

These are the socio-economic imbalances that have kept our country from progressing and developing due to corruption, looting, poor healthcare system, and unemployment. Majority of the South African population still find it difficult to pay school fees, transport costs and tertiary studies for their children. Rural schools struggle with basic facilities and resources i.e. water, sanitation, electricity, sports facilities, textbooks, stationery etc. This is happening while the majority population of this country and while the white population continue to enjoy the luxurious and opulence lifestyle at the backdrop of poor society. 

The government should be pro radical policy-shift drive and it supposed to favour and have a bias toward the poor, and not big business. In time, we might be in a position to have a more socioeconomic balanced society, only when we take drastic and radical decisions to redress the racial, socioeconomic inequalities. 

Nhlanhla Mosele is a Young African Leadership Initiative Network member.