New Internationalist

The grass is not greener in South Africa

I am not South African and I have only stayed in South Africa for a few months, but I know a lot about the country and am interested in what goes on there. There are several reasons for this, but the main one is that it is portrayed as the Canaan of Africa. South Africa is supposed to be the model African country. When Zimbabwe’s economy crumbled, South Africa became a source of hope for millions of Zimbabweans who risked limb and life illegally crossing the border. Most who crossed into South Africa will tell you a different story now they are there, though: the grass is definitely not greener on the other side.

Recent events have rubbished the perfect image of South Africa. All of South Africa’s problems seem to emanate from the huge gap between the rich and the poor, a division which is mostly along racial lines: whites are rich and blacks are poor. According to the South African Institute of Race Relations, the white per capita income is nearly eight times higher than that of blacks.

The rich black people are too few to be of any help in trying to bridge the wealth gap; they are mostly politicians or those connected to politicians. The results of a nationwide census earlier this year were released recently and it was announced with a sense of shock that the financial divide between black and white is huge. In reality this is hardly a huge reveal: everyone has always known it. The nationwide strikes in the mining sector, the transport sector and so on tell the story of an angry black majority. The strikes tell the story of a black majority buried so deep in the vicious cycle of poverty that they don’t see a way out; they are prepared to die while demanding that they receive remuneration that will allow them to live in dignity. And they have been dying.

The gunning down of 34 miners by police at Marikana in August tells the story of a government that is clueless as to how to solve their people’s problems. It reminds me of the words of Kenyan poet Tim Mwaura, ‘…filling the gap between the rich and the poor with bodies of the poor…’

South Africa needs transformation and it needs radical transformation. Addressing young people at a youth leadership summit in Harare, Zimbabwe, recently, the Zimbabwean Minister of Indigenization and Economic Empowerment, Saviour Kasukuwere, said: ‘a revolution cannot be led by sane people.’ South Africa needs leadership that will realize that the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ formula of land redistribution does not exactly work in a country that has millions living in shanty towns. South Africa cannot and should not, however, take notes from Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe on how to carry out land reform. As much as land reform was necessary in Zimbabwe, the methodology used was way too chaotic; its purpose was to enrich a few top dogs. South Africa needs transformation and soon, but is the South African model of black empowerment too polite and full of loopholes to do any good?

South Africans are disillusioned because the end of apartheid was, perhaps, an end in name only. Most black South Africans have seen no real benefits since the end of apartheid some 20 years ago. While we might all celebrate that the South African rugby and cricket teams are in the top five globally – the South African cricket team is currently ranked first – these money-spinning sports are dominated by whites. Surely blacks can run with an oval ball and swing a cricket bat – if they are given the opportunity to do so – a means, perhaps, to fish their families out of poverty.

Have the politicians forgotten why so many died at the hands of the apartheid army and police? Did Mandela and others spend all those years in prison for nothing? If something had been done as soon as a black government got into power, we would now have cricket and rugby teams in which half the players were black. Who can blame South African workers if they carry spears and knobkerries and declare war on a capitalist and racist system that has condemned them to shack-dwelling in their own country?

Photo: meshugas under a CC Licence

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  1. #1 Lee-Ann 11 Nov 12

    The black population of South Africa far outnumbers the white. This often goes unconsidered when some South Africans look at things like crime for instance. This is also what makes the degree of poverty amongst black people so glaring. This is a HUGE problem that is not adequately addressed by a government well-furnished with black representation. The sad state of the education system in post-apartheid South Africa is heart-breaking and certainly does no favours to bridging the gap mentioned in your post. Unfortunately, as with the white government that oppressed, the black government that should be uplifting suffers from out-of-site-out-of-mind syndrome as they sleep in their comfortable luxury homes and the people sleep restlessly in poorly built, too-small RDP houses or shacks.
    The lack of colour representation in sports teams can also be tied to the deterioration of the education system in a way: the white players generally get the training and the opportunities via school. Many black schools do not have furniture or books, let alone sports facilities.
    It is not a matter of assigning blame, but rather about assuming responsibility through action. Does the South African government have the guts to say: ’We are struggling to pull this off, can those who have the capacity and knowledge help (by creating strong and stable systems that raise standards, and also sees the proper administering of funds), so that we can can help our people move forward, not just in time but in quality of life?’
    The wounds of apartheid run deep and the damage has been alarmingly great, so at what point can the races stop seeing each other as 'us and them' and pool knowledge and energy to build the truly new South Africa?

  2. #2 AM 02 Jan 13

    A response from a South African:

    Why does nobody ever comment on the South African soccer teams having very little white, Indian, and coloured representation? Why has everybody forgotten that the indigenous people of South Africa are the Bushmen, and that South Africa was colonised by blacks from the north of Africa and by whites from Europe? So then do you think the land should be given back to the bushmen and blacks and whites should go back to where they came from? Why does nobody notice the enormous population growth of black South African compared to that of other race groups which have hardly increased at all? How can 50 million people overnight be squashed into the western system of South Africa which was initially designed to accommodate a few million people? Why don't black South Africans initiate employment opportunities and economic growth and come up with some of their own intiatives instead of only wanting to take over soemthing that someone else has built and always expecting assisitance and handouts from the West? Why did many Indian South Africans manage to build a life for themselves despite being oppressed by apartheid? Why does nobody understand that even if all the money and possessions owned by 4million white South Africans is given to 50 approx million black South Africans and evenly distributed, that everybody will still be poor after the handouts? Why is the South African tax payer's money not being used to build houses for the poor, improve the education system, provide water and sanitation to people, and to create employment opportunities? Why is the South African tax payer (a large percentage are white) paying to line the pockets of the rich elite (of all colours) of South Africa and to perpetuate their lavish lifestyles? Why are the rich elite (of all colours) encouraging the black masses to blame the minority white tax payer (whose tax money is supposed to be paying for education/health/housing services for the black majority) while they are just enriching themselves? Why are millions of rands of South African tax payer's money unaccounted for every year due to fraud and corruption? How can the tax money of 5million registered tax payers sustain and support 60million people? Why can't people stop blaming the past and other races and ethinic groups and start taking responsibility and being accountable for their own actions?

  3. #3 Kathryn 26 May 13

    I'm from the UK but have lived in SA for three years. In a ’non-white’ area for want of a better phrase...

    The inequality works now between people of all colours - the introduction of the BEE policy has meant that now some employers are able to favour black people over others for employment, there is a huge rise in the ’black middle-class’. The Maserati or Bentley being driven past you is more likely to be driven by a young black entrepreneur than the stereotypical ’old white rich guy’.

    Many of the differences are culturally ingrained - possibly aided by years of apartheid, but the example you use about sport is quite poignant. Soccer - is most loved and played by black people and local soccer is mostly supported by them, whereas many other South Africans may support the English Premier League for example. Rugby, however is often but not exclusively seen as a 'white’ thing despite everyone having the opportunity to play. It is part of certain schools identity and who has interest in it is passed down the generations. There is a feeling of national pride which does seem to unite SA when it comes to sport and that is also heavily promoted.

    Race as a concept is treated differently here there isn't the ’I don't see colour’ view of the UK and South Africans do talk about what coloured, black and white people are most likely to do, dress like, sound like etc and it's not always in racist terms... it is also seen as friendly banter as made famous by comedians like Trevor Noah.

  4. #4 Michael M Q 10 Sep 13

    This article made me shed a tear, its true to every sence of the word. the economic gap is pathetic in SA. im lost for words to describe how i feel right now

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About the author

Mgcini Nyoni is a playwright, theatre director, screenwriter, thinker, blogger and poet based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. He is also the founder and creative director of Poetry Bulawayo.

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