Like most societies, South Africa is built on a complex matrix of power, privilege and access to social mobility. Similar to many other countries, power and privilege in this country are shaped by the power-holders, who have historically been white and male.
It is they who have shaped the particularly toxic and entrenched patterns of access and opportunity to social, educational and economic progression and stratification in this country. The social stratification exists beyond deliberately race-based structures of power and opportunity. I contend that mobility is now so difficult that it has become a social caste from which most people cannot emerge.
South Africa is not alone in creating rigid social enclaves. Japan had four samurai classes, Korea had hereditary exclusion in the form of baekjeong (untouchable). The Ibos in parts of Nigeria define an Osu caste from which it is difficult to transition. And across Spain, France and Portugal social “untouchablity” prevented shared water fonts, separate places of worship and segregated doors well into the 19th century.
The sociologist Harry Hiller writes: “A class system is an open system of rating levels. If a hierarchy becomes closed against vertical mobility, it ceases to be a class system and becomes a caste system.”
Class mobility is elastic, with the possibility of social mobility. In theory, a person is able to work their way to an alternative economic lifestyle through enterprise and talent.
But, when the mitigating factors against upward movement are determined by not only a person’s current circumstances but by generations of factors such as health, education, income and family assets, this movement is almost impossible.
South Africa’s double plague of intergenerational poverty and unearned privilege present a compelling case for redefining the vocabulary of our class stratifications. The “bootstraps” argument can hardly be useful when there are no shoes from which to pull them.
At the beginning of our democratic dispensation, South Africa was ranked among the most unequal societies in the world, as a result of the differentiated distribution of state provisions, such as health and education, and legislated physical mobility that limited African people’s access to greater opportunity.
Troublingly, over the past 23 years of this dispensation, South Africa’s levels of inequality have exceeded and surpassed those before 1994 — notwithstanding the anticipation that democratisation of political power would also lead to democratisation of social and economic mobility and distribution of assets.
The indigent African majority was promised a better life and that the violence of the colonial apartheid regime would be redressed, eventually reversed and rebuilt.
In many respects, the various stakeholders, including the incoming government, did not adequately understand the complexities of reconfiguring many generations of economic feudalism.
The asset deficit for African people, who could not accumulate wealth during the colonial apartheid era, remains embedded in their social and economic capacities. This mediates choices about education, where to live, where to shop, whether to seek private healthcare or to use state health provisions.
The pathway of opportunity available to youth and children offers one gauge of social mobility. These measures include intangible assets, such as whether households have or have ever had a high school graduate, as well as material assets, including whether a household has a car.
A comparison of the opportunities available to young children and youth from privileged and disadvantaged backgrounds is useful because it illustrates that they have limited opportunity to distinguish themselves based on effort and hard work. The privileged glean their status more through the serendipity of being born into it rather than their own efforts. In the same vein the indigent and largely African working and underclass is so positioned not because of a lack of effort or talent but because of the circumstances that they are born into.
False meritocracy that insists that working hard is the only determinant to social mobility is thus dishonest and unhelpful. The differences in opportunities between privileged and socioeconomically dispossessed youth are largely attributable to the intergenerational legacies that define the circumstances into which they were born. These are marked by South Africa’s economic and political development trajectory and the confluence between the two.
The apartheid colonial government created patterns similar to other settler states, such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States. South Africa intentionally constructed an economy that required a pool of African labour that was the engine for its sustainability.
These were bolstered by a menu of policies and institutions that were extraordinarily coercive, accompanied by unapologetically discriminatory policies and intent.
The creation of labour market institutions was primarily to ensure the protection of white workers’ incomes. This was further bolstered by a fairly advanced welfare state that was again primarily extended to white workers.
Labour market institutions were designed to depress the wages paid to unskilled African workers, depressing their social mobility and aspirations.
These policies and institutions created the ongoing architecture of acute race-based inequality in relation to short-term dividends, and also shaped a future of inequality and social caste. The design of the economic growth path was so embedded that the inequality has self-perpetuated long after its initial proponents passed on.
Colonial South Africa’s other potent model was to destroy the African peasantry, including sharecroppers and landowners, by seizing community- and family-held lands. This forced Africans to migrate in two ways. The first was to seek work in better-paid urban areas despite the prohibitive sanctions on movement. The second, and possibly even more brutal, was to migrate our social aspirations steeply downward.
Class and caste are the product of the imaginations of the most powerful and privileged. This is illustrated by the rigidity of the feudal and caste systems that predetermined the untouchables merely to ensure a pool of labour to do the least desirable work.
Imagining or aspiring one’s way into an alternative reality is framed by the powerful as an act of absolute social transgression (often using Christian or Hindu theology to justify the taboo against mobility).
Yet such aspiration is a necessary transgression to create the momentum for rebellion against the vicissitudes of politically and economically engineered suffering.
This predetermined social mobility has a profound effect on our young democracy. There is a correlation between our democratic expansion and our income disparities.
Furthermore, there is a strong relationship between levels of education and being able to advance certain life outcomes.
Part of the necessary act of transgression against being held intergenerationally as bonded labour to privileged capital is the identification of pathways towards upward mobility. Even though many agree these pathways should be available, there does not seem to be consensus on how to create ladders to these pathways.
For the apartheid regime, providing welfare to indigent white people was a mechanism to move them out of poverty and to subvert cross-racial worker solidarity. This successfully entrenched the idea that poverty has a racial component and ensured that black poverty remained greater across generations.
This means African poverty is both vertical and horizontal. Most African families do not have rich uncles or trust-fund grandmothers to assist during financial strain. Most peer groups, friends and neighbours are in a similar position. This has entrenched a subclass that has become an immovable caste by virtue of its inflexibility and ongoing depletion of the limited African asset base. This depletion is of voice, power, influence, choice and material.
Despite international literature on class mobility, little analysis has been done on social mobility in South Africa, largely because of limited research. Social strata remain closed, rigid and almost impossible to penetrate or to transform because they bolster the economic and social order. Economists and sociologists usually examine different outcomes such as movement in income and social class using similar paradigms. But mobility research from these disciplines is now understanding that intragenerational mobility is “the degree to which an individual’s socioeconomic status depends on his or her parents’ status”, according to Sarah Girdwood and Murray Leibbrandt.
The idea of social mobility suggests it is not unusual for people to move up or down the social ladder. Even though most countries claim to have open classes that are subject to mobility, whether sideways, upward and even downwards, most citizens are born into a hereditary social structure with varying or limited flexibilities.
Yet our eyes daily observe the entrenched social limits of movement. The tension between race, gender, family background and effort is visible at any traffic light and in any unemployment line. The colour bar has been abolished but the legacy of intergenerational lack, limitation and deprivation continues to create an African class for whom generations of immobility, lost opportunity and diminished possibilities have created the same repugnant outcomes as any other caste system.
Lebohang Liepollo Pheko is an activist scholar, political economist, public intellectual, commentator and senior research fellow