South Africa's Deep Divide


"They have people who are living in glass and gold across them." So says one of the characters in Woza Albert, the Apartheid-era stage play now revived, 20 years on, in its original milieu at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre.

The actors — Mncedisi Baldwin Shabangu and Hamilton Ntokozo Dlamini in the present production — portray a gallery of dramatis personae through mime and deft characterisation, by turns poignant and uproarious. The old dude threading a needle and sewing a button on his tattered coat brought the house down; the baleful intonations of National Party President PW Botha were recreated to uncanny effect.

Most of the characters are from the streets of Soweto — urban blacks, herded into townships and squatter camps under minority rule and, one of them reflects, "drinking water out of rusty tins". What gives the play its moral force is not merely their struggles to survive with dignity, amid poverty and degradation, but outrage at the huge disparities of wealth and power, symbolised by the dominant presence, across the city, of the pampered rich: the whites who live in glass and gold.

Those gleaming edifices are still in evidence. Sandton City Mall, with its designer boutiques — Vuitton, Ferragano, Cartier — is doing brisk business. So too, shockingly, are the squatter camps, now called "informal settlements". A mere 20 kilometres away from Jo’burg’s leafiest suburb, the residents of Meadowlands are still waiting for basic services — housing and sanitation — to be provided. The Apartheid Museum features a large picture of city officials holding up a map, some time in the 1950s, showing Meadowlands earmarked for the growing black population to be shoved into.

President Jacob Zuma, reviewing the achievements in office of the African National Congress, which has held power since the first democratic election in 1994, said 29 per cent more of South Africa’s people now have access to mains water. There is still raw sewage running down the dirt streets of Meadowlands, but elsewhere, impressive public investment is on display.

Soweto boasts the biggest hospital in the Southern Hemisphere, serving a population for whom private medical insurance is out of reach. It’s about to get another, although that project is five years behind schedule and will cost twice its original budget.

Inefficiency in service delivery is a pressure point for the ANC at both national and regional level. The Opposition Democratic Alliance is media-savvy, and quick to highlight broken promises. It should, after all, be simple enough to install sewers and toilets that might in turn improve public health and take some of the pressure off overworked medical staff.

Zuma’s public address came on Freedom Day, a holiday to mark the anniversary of that historic free vote 18 years ago. As majority rule comes of age, there’s a growing sense of impatience that change is coming too slowly, and in some key respects risks going into reverse.

The speech coincided with an important concession by the Transport Department over the introduction of e-tolls: a regressive tax, long-established as a feature of motoring in Australia but resented here as adding yet further to the cost of living, as staples including fuel and food soar in price. Due to take effect this week, they’ve now been put back a month to allow further consultations to take place.

South Africa remains a deeply divided country. Wages and salaries for blacks are still much lower than for whites, on average, although "Black Economic Empowerment" programs have added a significant black contingent to the wealthy. According to the Gini coefficient, the measure economists use to gauge the distribution of household income, this is the third most unequal country on earth, behind only neighbouring Namibia, and the Seychelles. What’s more, barely one-third of its national income goes to public spending.

By the time the ANC took office, they had been bamboozled into accepting the tenets of the Washington consensus for economic management, including an "independent" central bank and membership of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (forerunner of the World Trade Organisation), which forbade transitional subsidies to strategic industries to create ladders of opportunity into well-paying jobs. This is the infamous "kicking away the ladder" — the phrase coined by Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang to denote the process by which the rich countries now deny to others the policies they themselves used to attain their position of privilege.

The party today maintains an impressive level of discipline, displayed in its decision last week to expel Julius Malema, leader of the ANC Youth League. The League was formed in the 1940s to — as the exhibit in the Apartheid Museum puts it — "re-dynamise" the liberation movement. Among its luminaries of the time was a young Nelson Mandela.

Malema’s transgressions included accusing President Zuma of acting like a dictator. Earlier, he’d attained notoriety through statements and behaviour that opened him to charges of racism towards whites. But the League’s last major public event under his leadership was a march against poverty, which symbolically bore down on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, situated in Sandton.

His signature policy was a call for the country’s mines — source and symbol of wealth in South Africa — to be taken into national ownership. This was a key plank of the Freedom Charter, adopted at an historic People’s Congress in Soweto in the 1950s and carried throughout the liberation struggle — until it was promptly ditched in the secret negotiations which took place as Apartheid came to an end.

The ANCYL also runs the Student Representative Council of the University of Johannesburg, where two-thirds of the students are the first in their family to enter higher education. Their impressive young officers characterised the ANC approach, to improving the conditions and prospects of the poor, as one of "efficient equality". The League "still stands militant and radical", ready to push the party to implement more far-reaching changes, according to SRC President, Lesego Montsho.

The ANC, celebrating its centenary this year, remains the "pillar of hope", another activist told New Matilda, for everyone in South Africa, "that I’m going to get somewhere" in life. Withdrawing the e-tolls would be a small but positive sign of renewed egalitarian commitment. There is speculation that COSATU — the Confederation of South African Trade Unions, still formally allied to the ANC but opposed to the tolling plan — may propose funding infrastructure improvements by a wealth tax instead.

That would revive the principle enshrined in the Freedom Charter, that riches accumulated under white supremacist laws should, in the name of justice, be expropriated, at least to some extent.

If the aspirations unleashed by the successful struggle against Apartheid are to be realised, there will need to be many more policies in similar vein.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.