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South African Society Today-A Critical Analysis

By Sabina Grigore

Up until 1994, South Africa was one of the most unequal countries in the world, almost entirely
concentrated on racial division. Since the end of the apartheid, by strengthening the democracy,
the governments were able to reduce inequality through economic development with relatively
high rates of growth during most of the period. This has created both a new set of opportunities,
and challenges all aimed at social transformation.

For a better understanding of the current position of South Africa and a comprehensive analysis
of the situation there, one should take into account the roots of the problem.

Racial segregation and white supremacy have been central aspects of South African policy long
before apartheid began. The Land Act from 1913 meant the beginning of territorial segregation.
Great Depression from 1930s and World War II caused economic damage and determined the
South African government to develop and strengthen its policies of racial segregation. As a result,
in 1948 the Afrikaner National Party came into power under the slogan “apartheid”, which is the
Afrikaans term for “separateness”. Immediately after winning the elections, the all-white
government began enforcing the above mentioned policies. Generally, that meant a total
separation of the nonwhite South Africans, who represented a majority of the population. The
contact between them and the whites was limited.

Resistance came both internally and externally. It came from all circles, and not only, as is often
presumed, from those who suffered the negative effects of discrimination. Under pressure from
the international community, the National Party government of Pieter Botha sought to institute
some reforms, but because there was no visible change he had to resign in favour of F.W. de
Klerk in 1989. After the liberation of Nelson Mandela, who served 27 years in prison, he worked
together with the new president to draw up a new constitution. The elections in 1994 led to a
coalition government with a non-white majority, marking the official end of the apartheid system.
Lastly, Nelson Mandela becomes the first black president of the country. Fortunately, this is
history now, and the nation has been working on establishing a positive image internationally,
but there are still many pressing issues affecting the country negatively.

Education is one of the major problems, affecting other areas as well. Without an educated
population, a country cannot progress not only in terms of economic development but also when
it comes to political development. Even though the Republic of South Africa has a literacy rate of
about 86.4% the government schools are suffering from very low standards and offer
poor-quality education, especially in rural communities and in the outskirts of the cities. The
majority of the schools are overcrowded and the government has not been able to supply
enough classroom spaces for those of school age. A school’s local governing body can charge
additional fees to students to maintain certain standards, facilities. Therefore, the quality of
education is better in wealthier neighborhoods, where families can afford high fees, than in poor
neighborhoods. Part of the problem is tied to budget constraints, but there are also
administrative and corruption issues. Corruption Watch, a non-government organization, said
that between 2012 and 2015 it received more than 1,000 reports of school principals who had
stolen cash from school bank accounts. Moreover, the quality of the teachers is seen as a
problem, and apparently, it’s not uncommon to find teachers with only a tenth-grade education
themselves teaching students in grade 12. As a result of all these problems, a private-school
market has emerged in this country. Given capacity and quality issues in government schools, as
well as a lack of schools in newly developing areas, middle-class families are seeking to enroll
their children in lower-cost private schools in greater numbers. The problem is that, at the end of
the day, the whites remain the most skilled as a result of their affordability to quality education
and as a consequence, it worsens the gap between rich and poor and underlines the existing
discrepancies between black and white. On an international level, education in most schools is so
weak that South African primary school children on average perform worse on international
tests than children from its much poorer neighbour, Swaziland.

The lack of opportunities for a proper education has led South Africa to one of the top positions
when it comes to HIV/AIDS prevalence among the adult population, with a rate 18,9%.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 7.1 million people were living with HIV in
2016. There were about 270,000 new HIV infections with about 110,000 AIDS-related officially
recorded deaths. Although South Africa has the largest antiretroviral treatment program in the
world, only about 56% of infected adults were on antiretroviral treatment in 2016.

Another issue affecting a majority of the citizens is the economical state in which it finds itself.
South Africa’s economy is the second largest in Africa after Nigeria but with substantially better
infrastructure. It has a relatively high GDP per capital compared with other countries, but it also
has extremes of wealth and poverty. Although the end of apartheid has brought improvement in
the lives of millions across the country, the number of people (including White South Africans)
living under the international poverty line, has sadly remained very high especially in the rural
and sub-urban areas. The Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, ranks South Africa as
one of the world’s most unequal society when it comes to income. This is highly worsened by
some aspects like household size and composition (the poor have more children), unemployment
(which affects the poor more)or dividends and property income. The South African state owns
about 700 firms, which consists of a whole range of companies operating in various industries
which are called “parastatals”. Privatization is one solution to addressing corruption and
inefficiencies in the industries owned by the state, which would result in greater transparency
and adherence to profit targets. The problem is that people are afraid of losing their job are
causing opposition to this kind of approach. However, there is evidence that some steps are
being taken to improve the performance of state-owned companies, including the hiring of
outside consultants in some cases, to help find ways to boost revenue, including restructuring.
Restrictive labor regulations and a lack of skills and educational development have contributed
to large-scale unemployment, which remains problematic.

One other existing problem of the society in this country is that crime and violence rates are
present in high numbers. Although living conditions in South Africa are generally better than in
most other African countries, South Africa, in spite of a recent drop in crime rates, has one of the
highest crime rates in the world today with several violent crimes such murders, rape and
assaults recorded every single day. A major challenge and opportunity for South Africa is
immigration from other parts of Africa, with refugees seeking asylum from persecution or simply
trying to find a way to make a living in one of Africa’s richest economies. This includes many
illegal immigrants. Competition for jobs means tension and violence between the refugees and
local communities—along with poverty and crime. Middle- and upper-class South Africans are
major clients for security services. However, crime cannot be attributed only to immigrants and a
general lack of law enforcement is also a factor. Immigration can have a positive impact and, as
we have seen in other parts of the world, immigrants have made tremendous contributions to
the economy and culture of the countries they have entered.

When it comes to politics, just like in most other African countries today, ignorance, corruption
and poor governance continue to affect South Africa. Sadly, Nelson Mandela's dream of an
"ideal" society, is far from reality nowadays. The country joined the International Criminal Court
when they were fresh victims of gross human rights violation-after apartheid. Now they are
showing the strongest opposition against the institution. The message of the ICC is that serious
international crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes cannot be
tolerated. In 2015, South African government refused arresting the president of Sudan. He
traveled to South Africa to attend a meeting of the African Union, and South Africa, as a member
of the court, was legally required to arrest him. But the government allowed Mr. Bashir to leave
the country, arguing that heads of state had immunity during the African Union summit meeting.
They later announced that it was withdrawing from the ICC because it did not want to execute
such arrest warrants. Historically African leaders have shown a reluctance to submit themselves
to a court’s jurisdiction and it seems likely for South Africa to fall in that trap again.

Another example is the one of the former president Jacob Zuma who was recently criticized for
corruption issues like spending more than $23 million to upgrade his private home, including
things such as a swimming pool and an amphitheater from public money. He was booed at a
memorial service for Mandela even though the crowd was dominated by members of his party.

In terms of equality, one could argue that the levels of inequality are much higher nowadays
than before apartheid came to an end. According to some surveys South Africans who live in
affluent households in urban areas interact and socialise the most across racial lines, and those
in the least affluent households – often in rural areas, homogenous former townships and
informal settlements, and where formal sector employment is low – interact and socialise the
least. Much of the difference between the black and white populations comes from the new way
of approaching things in post-apartheid South Africa. After 1994, the black population
experienced broad income gains, better-educated black people gained the most, since they were
best positioned to grasp the new opportunities for upward mobility, and visible black middle and
high-income classes rapidly arose. Poorer and less educated people were the only clear losers.
They lost the job protection they had enjoyed under apartheid, while the value of their social
pensions and other grants was reduced when grants were equalised. White inequality has
therefore also grown. Since 1994, the number of whites in the country has been on a slow, but
steady decline. The causes lie with the low birth rate and the high number of whites unable or
unwilling to continue living in South Africa for various reasons, including the high crime rate that
prevails in the country.

All the above presented issues may have the people from the outside thinking “Is this fair
accounting for South Africa?”. The optimists say this country remains the most advanced country
in Africa, with thriving cities that are integrated into the global economy. Millions of blacks have
been educated and risen out of poverty. The country's broad successes offer hope for others on
this continent. But many also agree with the fact that the country's leaders have been
disappointing, because they weren’t able to follow high standards set by Mandela. The reality
lies, in my opinion, somewhere in the middle. Blacks are, statistically speaking, still the most
underprivileged group within South African society but the country seems to be getting better, if
one manages to realize the situation it comes from and also the current state on the continent.
Change does come step by step, and South Africa has already successfully begun to distance
itself from the tragic period of governmental inequality. Statistically, from many points of view, it
does best considering the standards on the continent and really good, comparing it with the
situation in 1994.


I’ve written the part about the ICC for a debating tournament and I couldn’t find the exact
sources of the information I included there, because I didn’t save the internet addresses but
here’s what I found: