Thabang Motsohi
Thabang Motsohi

Inequality may derail our democratic stability

The most persistent and grotesque characteristic of apartheid South Africa was the creation and maintenance of inequality premised on the superiority of one race over another. For well over three hundred years its policy focus and decisions were directed at reinforcing and sustaining the status quo with a view to ensuring that equal opportunity was denied to the majority of black people.

The focus of the black struggle for change was therefore driven by the vision that called for the dismantling and restructuring of the political economic system and substituting it with a system that was premised on equal rights for all, and fair and equal opportunity to realise one’s dreams in a constitutional democracy.

The first and most significant step in this transformation trajectory was the successful negotiation and conclusion of our widely admired constitution. The holding of our peaceful and successful elections in 1994 was a powerful statement by all South Africans for a desire to protect and sustain a peaceful transition. In effect, the transition marked the reality that the power to decide on the future direction of the country was now vested in a democratically elected government and our electoral system also ensured that all minority groups had a fair opportunity for making their voices heard.

With this act, the political aspect of our political economic restructuring agenda was achieved. The political power dynamics were changed forever in line with our constitutional aspirations. However, it was clear that this was only a small step in a long process that required that we build solid democratic institutions to buttress our young and fledgling democracy. We have done reasonably well in this regard and in reconstructing and building an independent judicial system and vigorous institutions in the past 20 years.

A major challenge and an outstanding question is how we engage on a broad and deep manner on the question of how to resolve the question of reducing the persistent wealth inequality that defines our country.

The future stability of our country will depend on how we resolve this structural weakness. This is an issue that has preoccupied governments since the formation of nation states, and responsible governments have always come with policy interventions that are aimed at protecting the poor and creating a fair and equitable environment for the pursuit of individual enterprise. The apartheid regime was concerned with protecting the interests of a racially defined minority.

We have done extremely well in terms of developing and implementing policies that were designed to improve the lot of the poor. But we have done very little or nothing to fundamentally address the reality of unfair accumulation of wealth by a racially defined minority group under apartheid. The challenge of finding a broadly acceptable formula for redress and redistribution will remain the most critical and illusive challenge of our democratic transition.

Nothing in the Labour Relations Act of 1995, the Employment Equity Act of 1998 or the contemplated revisions to the Black Economic Empowerment Act will deliver the desired outcomes. The reality is that the constellation of economic and political power relationships that was the key driver to the racially defined political elite in the apartheid era has been replicated since the beginning of our democratic dispensation in 1994.

What has happened is that inequality has grown consistently in the past 20 years, achieving for us the inglorious distinction of being the most unequal nation in the world, powered by the effect and outcome of our black economic empowerment policies and programmes that have tended to benefit the narrow interests of the politically connected. The largest gains in terms of wealth accumulation in the democratic dispensation have accrued to those that benefitted from unfair protection under apartheid and now also include the black and politically connected elite. This situation is unsustainable and undesirable for the stability of a democracy as young as ours.

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    • Heinrich

      Apartheid lasted for 40 years – not 300.

      After 20 years of ANC “rule” ( 50% of apartheid ) the levels of inequality are the highest ever.

      We have not yet attained freedom and democracy. All we have achieved is the scrapping of apartheid and the creation of a huge gap between the have’s and the have – nots.

      The next step towards freedom and democracy should be to abolish political parties, institute a proper quality driven executive which is governed by a geographically representative parliament, and an independent President.

    • Kreef

      SA after apartheid has only one major problem ………the ANC . If we banned all political parties and left governing up to the general population , we would solve all our problems within a relatively short time . We all , black and white , want the same thing . A prosperous , free country that improves the lives of all citizens .

    • ISax

      Major problem—corruption ! No funds for the poor, for the children and the elderly.
      Not enough houses being built to give South African citizens dignity abd shelter .
      Minimum wages as such don’t exist .
      we need proper checks and balances in p,ace not a rap on the knuckles after the bad deed has been done and the culprit drives off in a top of the range vehicle to a luxurious mansion.

    • BrianB

      “For well over three hundred years its policy focus and decisions were directed at reinforcing and sustaining the status quo with a view to ensuring that equal opportunity was denied to the majority of black people.”

      This is precisely what the current hierarchy are doing to all people.

      No amount of constitution writing or law formulation will substitute the need for strong principled integral leadership.

    • dan

      Agree with the article, except for it’s summation. The inequality will continue to grow as long as our institutions are under attack by the privileged, and as long as being apolitical Yesman is the road to economic gain.

      A huge part of current inequality is the lack of money being put into education, housing, proper training in almost everything (teachers, police etc) while HUGE amounts are being siphoned off by our political elite. Not including this current crisis in resources is glaring in this article. Much more can be done right now.

      The judicial system, crucial to justice and equality, is being attacked and weakened right now – these are the structural inequities that must be addressed urgently, and with massive public outcry. Does the author truly believe that any programme to redress and redistribute would reach the deserving target? No, it would go to the friends and relatives or followers of our people in power.

      Just look at Zimbabwe’s looting of the national assets – our people are more subtle, but they are working on decreasing transparency and accountability and oversight in our key national structures. Thus a well written article that remains in denial of what the major problem is makes disappointing reading.

    • proactive

      If all influential leaders, consultants & politicians could be cleansed of their entrenched opinions or replaced by others fearlessly adopting new radical but modern and groundbreaking thinking! Forward looking instead of regurgitating stale and unfortunate history! Not in finding solutions by writing tons of equally racial but unhelpful so called ‘corrective legislation’, hemorrhaging the whole country!

      Politics has to be adapted to allow economic growth to accelerate, driven by people who know how, to such an extent that all SA citizens, regardless of race, inferior education and skills will all be sucked into such an economy- like a tsunami- producing even a manpower shortage, eliminating fear by all, unblocking the present created stalemate by lethargic, old fashioned Marxist thinkers, constantly chanting, lamenting and preaching from a book of outdated ideologies!

      China’s transformation wonder might be a good case study to start with!

    • D.R. Baker

      Thank you for the article. It is very true that inequality threatens the stability of a well-functioning society. This article shows that this connection is no accident. Recent research shows that wealth is strongly associated with entitlement and narcissism.

      Not only does wealth challenge the fairness of the system today, but it also challenges the fairness of the system going forward as the winners feel justified in the inequity. Thank you for bringing this issue to light.

    • Tofolux

      @Thabang, proper interrogation and investigation will reveal that the negotiations at Codesa was done in ”bad” spirit and I think that De Klerk and his co-horts cannot be recused from what they did. The entrenchment of inequality pre and post apartheid is a result of the model and type of goverment we have. This point is borne by the example of WCAPE. On any level, any sobre-minded person will see the entrenchment and perpetration of the type of inequalities experienced during apartheid. The interrogation of the 3 spheres of govt, their operations vs legislation vs service delivery leaves much to be How is it that housing enjoys 3 areas of responsiblity and that the very legislation is so conflicted so that it prevents a proper turnaround of service delvery. This is one eg . ANC must be commended for achievements that was never achieved in the history of any govt in our country. They hve delivered under huge constraints and here I point to the Tswane eg. If we have the type of migration we expereinc from our own citizens and those who are in our country illegally to the economic centres, how do municipalities deliver when that majority of ppl do not pay for service delivery? Hw do you also measure delivery noting budgeting processes, the timelines, exhaustive procurement constrainments, consultation etc etc. We were ”tricked” and misled at Codesa. We need a re-look at our model of govt,legislation and un-do the guarantee of inequality and priviledges.

    • GrahamJ

      I have often wondered how this “inequality premised on the superiority of one race over another” came about.
      What was the root cause? How did it manifest?

    • Mark

      This is an interesting article with a lot of merit. But the author needs to see that the primary factor holding black people back is not “white minority capital’. It all boils down to an education system that is so stuffed that young kids from previously disadvantaged backgrounds will never better themselves. White kids were educated in a system that was built for success, but our wise new government dismantled it and decided to go their own way. How can education continually falter when R232.5-billion of the country’s R1.06-trillion budget is given to this sphere.

      My final point is that with overbearing pseudo communist policies that restrict growth, how can you ever expect the market to grow enough to warrant more employment. Our government views the economy as finite which is a collosal failure.

    • Mr. Direct

      From the posts above there seems to be consensus, that apartheid caused a major problem with modern day South Africa in respect to wealth creation for the majority of the population.

      Similarly, there seems to be agreement that government strategy seems not to work, or if it could, it is poorly implemented.

      The big question is, how to resolve this?

      Handing money to people will not help them become economically independent. The grant system in place facilitates positive change, but is not the solution.

      Education is a definite key to economic independence, and entrepreneurship is required to grow the economy to support skill growth, and create more jobs.

      I think this is why every time government fails in respect to education, and sending mixed signals in economic policy, there is outrage and frustration as this takes us a step backwards.

      I do not care which political party is in government, all I care about is that their policy is beneficial to all in this country. I do not have confidence in this current government, I think their actions undermine any positive policies they may have, and therefore I believe political change is necessary to bring this country forward.

      @Tofolux, I would love to hear more about your statement: “re-look at our model of govt,legislation and un-do the guarantee of inequality and priviledges”. Are you suggesting communism as a solution?

    • Tofolux

      @Mr Direct the question has been put. There is a structural weakness that presents a huge challenge for ALL OF US. How you read Communism into my response proves the point that ”education” is not the problem. To make the point. Even if we produce the best educated populace, this doesnt mean that they will be clever. Hence forget education as the only answer to a continued UNEQUAL SOCIETY. Thats just far too narrow and I would suggest that some amongst us do some introspection and come up with some honest contributions.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Does anyone remember the Avis advert from years ago? The whole ‘we are second so we try harder’?

      Yes, we shouldn’t have the extreme levels of inequality that we do …. but there is a lot to be said for motivation. Our country is more equal now than what it was 20 years ago because black people stepped up and made it happen. Government can’t do much (other than education) and industry can’t do much (well not with our labour climate) but people can overcome a lot when they get the opportunity to do so.

      This concept that white South Africans are super wealthy is a myth. The majority of us live on credit. The ‘wealth’ we have is from generations of hard work (yes, we did have to work for money) and the majority of white people worked for way less in South Africa than they would have gotten in Europe.

      A friend mentioned the other day how the new government has made white South Africans into the best they have ever been. Our kids have to get straight distinctions to get into universities and the parents need to be astute business people (with their own businesses) to get employed. Another friend lamented that black people used to be like that but now they aim for mediocrity and a government job. …… both friends in the conversation were black

    • bernpm

      Inequality in all its forms (social, financial, environmental, economical, health…..)
      has been with us and will be with us for ever.
      Discussions, debates, policies, social movements,wars will not change that.
      The best we can achieve is a change in the direction some of us want only to findout that, when achieved, another movement will rise and work towards another “ideal” situation.

      SA is currently in the waiting for this”Economic Freedom Fighters”. Again..economic freedom does ot exist. On an earth with limited resources, we cannot (and will not) allow a bunch of idealists to ruin a society because they cannot have their toy when they want it.

      Wars, throughout history, were fought on the basis of economic unevennesses with the pupose to equalise those. by levelling or simple by taking over. Guess what? We are still fighting wars.

      Interesting debate and……….apartheid has little to do with it. It was, is and wil remain in any shape or form a tool to move the power fields of equality.

    • Mr. Direct


      So how do you make people clever? Enlighten us so that we can be free….

      Oh, and by the way, I do not expect an answer to this, because we all know you cannot answer a direct question with a direct answer….

    • proactive

      @ D.R.Baker ….greetings to a rare American visitor, unfortunately also just preaching from the classic textbook of “how humans should behave”- without having solutions!

      Not wasting a glance into their checkered history or losing words- there are proportionally massive issues to be sorted out in America today in order to stabilize its own ship and sanity! It would require applying all their great minds towards it- failing a solution, will effect the rest of the world and all our future!

      While SA has a problem with not enough educated people- America has seemingly a ‘reverse problem’- having not enough appropriate employment space for all these ‘over educated college graduates’.

      Judging by Wall street, all the ‘professional gamblers’, masquerading as honest bankers and brokers with the straightest face on earth and the behavior of the global corporations, (“the 1%”) – surely managed all by ex American university graduates, the question arises:

      Which is the smaller evil- having to many uneducated people in a country or too many over educated ones- equally idling & brewing- not all- but both probably lacking human virtues, honesty, integrity & wisdom?

    • Tofolux

      @Mr Direct, you are digressing. Please stay on the topic and I promise you an engaging debate.

    • Mr. Direct


      Nice – you dodged the question as expected.

      Seems this is not a debate, seems more like a quiz, where we all try guess what you are talking about.

      Don’t bore us with reasons from the past, tell us how to shape the future. Come on, engage us in this debate, enlighten us with your wisdom!

      How does South Africa remove the destabilising effect of inequality, that threatens our infant democracy?

    • Tofolux

      @Mr Direct, the question you crudely put premises that our democracy started on a clean slate. It presupposes that we inherited a constitutional state. It pre-supposes that the state and nature of the “inherited state” was a homogeneous hegemony. Our new democracy with our developmental state, identified a triple challenge which is poverty, unemployment and inequality. Thabang has dealt with some of this and a lead question one would ask: is the developmental state any longer appropriate in overcoming the triple challenge? This question would presuppose that you understand the model and objectives so that in answer to your own question you can assist whomsoever who rebutts an opportunity to interrogate and allow you to influence through the battle of ideas. And of course we cannot blame govt for ALL our woes simply because we, citizenry must be at the centre of reaching particular objectives. This govt has done well despite a well known fact that we have a particular section of our citizenry who has not only been disloyal, unpatriotic and unnecessary hostile and belligerent, it is they who have placed themselves at the centre to challenge our infant democracy so that we do not reach our developmental goals of alleviating poverty, unemployment and inequality.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      Mr Direct, people are talking about inequality in SA, but they never mention feudalism in SA where the people living on tribal lands are nothing but serfs. Also, the government should be promoting investments to create jobs and wealth like China did. The people that have been in control of the ANC are hurting this country with all of this talk of Fanon that nobody in their right mind read today.

    • Charlotte

      @ Mr. Direct. I take my hat off to you for even attempting to reason, explain or engage with T-flux.
      A direct question never gets a direct answer – or any answer, for that matter. All one gets is another off-the topic roundabout of words incomprehensively strung together -with no leaning towards any possible common sense or conceivable purpose.

      I love the irony in her reply to you: ” Mr Direct, you are digressing. Please stay on the topic and I promise you an engaging debate.”
      (An ‘engaging debate.’ nogal. .. She’s also a comedian.)

    • DeeGee

      @Tofolux. *wink, wink*. Very good stuff. I liked this bit “…disloyal, unpatriotic and unnecessary hostile and belligerent…”. That’s COSATU, right? Nice.

    • Mr. Direct


      You still have not answered any of the questions.

      I do not agree with your comments on clean slate. After years of sanctions, companies were falling over their own feet to reinvest in South Africa. 1994 onwards was going to show economic growth, even if Mickey Mouse and the rest of the Disney crowd were in government (although I believe they are currently elected).

      To address economic balance between rich and poor, mechanisms like taxation allow the government to become Robin Hood, take from the rich and give to the poor. But this is where government fails. Although they have raised taxes for the rich, they would rather spend vast money on self gratification than actually use these funds on the poor. Take for example Tlokwe, or R200M+ on Nkandla if we are to be so bold and accuse central government of misappropriation. Thousands more stories just like this are known to the general population through all forms of media.

      In addition, for the sake of our future, it makes more sense to lift people out of poverty, rather than drag everyone into it. Here is where education and economic policy are crucial to our success. Again where government has been failing.

      I have not read the NDP, but it seems after 20 years dithering around blind, the ANC have tried to create a plan. But if COSATU’s reaction is anything to go by, then it also does not address inequality…

    • Tofolux

      @Mr Direct, I have dealt with your first question ie your claim of communism, your second question of education and dealt with some of your other wildcards. It is obvious that you have been greatly influenced by the propaganda that is peddled in the public domain.I am not surprised given that a particular ideology pre-1994 took concerted party programming and propaganda and proved to be very successful for some amongst us. So what are the facts? You have not rebutted ANY achievement with a fact. Let me help you, the alliance meeting have agreed on their differences iro the NDP. In fact THEY ARE IN AGREEMENT. A joint task team with the secretariat has been set up. FACT. Whr ther is agreement all have agreed that programs will proceed. See 2030 targets iro artisans by FET college as eg.FACT. Your claims of Tlokwe and Nkandla are just that, claims and propaganda. There is a COMMISSION OF ENQUIRY underway and I suggest you urge your party to get a COMMISSION OF ENQUIRY for Tlokwe as well. Not that I expect your party to respect these outcomes other than to use these as cheap politicking tools and wasting much needed public funds that could be used elsewhere. Instead of grand-standing and mis-using public forums for cheap political point-scoring with nonsensical claims and information can I suggest you try some honesty and maybe and only maybe we might all be enriched with some lateral and constructive thinking. Is that too much to ask? Yep I guess so.

    • Mr. Direct


      The author of this piece, also has the opinion that government is failing, quotations such as “The reality is that the constellation of economic and political power relationships … has been replicated since the beginning of our democratic dispensation in 1994.”, and “programmes that have tended to benefit the narrow interests of the politically connected” confirm this.

      Resolving inequality only has two eventual conclusions, make the rich poorer, or make the poor richer. Seems you prefer the former as some sort of punitive measure, although most would prefer the latter as this is essentially the path to economic freedom.

      The fact is that the economy is not where it should be (lower than other African countries, never mind BRICS), unemployment is high, crime statistics are sad reading, international schooling measurement is bleak reading, we are still the most unequal society in the world. These indicators are not trumped up propaganda, they are all factual, and all a steady measure of government’s failure.

      And you must be crazy if you think R200M+ for Nkandla is justifiable. No matter who approved the spend, it is a slap in poor people’s face. And when ANC councillors vote no confidence for their mayor, oh boy, who needs proof?

      I do not support a political party. I do not think any of them are worth my vote, and therefore I do not waste my time at the polls. If one happens to have a credible plan, that includes my interests, perhaps this will…

    • Tofolux

      @Mr Direct, so the attacks on ANC, the Govt, Cosatu, Communism comes from a logical and objective analysis. You are clearly singing from a particular hymn sheet and you are clearly toeing a particular propagandist line. I, at least am prepared to boldy declare where I stand and at every opportunity you shirk the opportunity at a very fundamental level of honesty. This is exactly what Steve Biko has warned us against so many many years ago and yet today we still have the same cloak and daggers. Wow clearly some will be proud of you and they must be congratulated for the being so successful for instilling such fear that even in the advent of freedom a mere 20yrs ago you cannot get rid of that cloak of fear. Have a good weekend Mr D and I promise that freedom is a wonderful thing. Try it, it will surprise and liberate you. PLO.