​Analysis of inequality in South Africa remains shallow




A major report on South African inequality, Inequality Trends in South Africa was published last week and received prominent coverage.

The TimesLive article, “Whites earn three times more than black people: Stats SA”, by Unathi Nkanjeni, tells us nothing we don’t already know — it merely gives the latest figures to what everyone already knows about South Africa’s supposed racialised inequality.

The Mail & Guardian article by Dennis Webster, “Why South Africa is the world’s most unequal society” (first published by New Frame), uses additional research to compound what it, too, presents as racialised inequality. Measuring wealth, rather than income, the M&G reports that the richest 1% of South Africans own 67% of the country’s wealth, with the top 10% owning 93% and the remaining 90% owning a mere 7%. Such are the numbers of world-beating inequality.

Webster asks but doesn’t answer his own question: “Why does the gap in South Africa’s earnings continue to widen?” Instead, he addresses the question of why South Africa’s inequality “remains stubbornly racialised”. He tells us: “The persistence of South Africa’s inequality a quarter of a century after formal democracy is, in large part, down to enduring colonial and apartheid geographies.”

“Racialised inequality” is, at best, a lazy answer. I can state this with assurance because we must presume that both authors read the Inequality Trends report. Indeed, it was a single sentence in Nkanjeni’s article — “The report also found that the wage gap between SA’s groups increased between 2011 and 2015” — that intrigued me sufficiently to read the whole report.

By so doing, I found the following two paragraphs, in the Inequality Trends report. The first one, on page 40, notes: “In 2006, both the within-group and between-groups inequality based on population group contributed equally to overall inequality … However, the within-group inequality overtook the between-groups inequality for the remaining periods (2009, 2011 and 2015). Meanwhile … the within-group inequality accounted for 58,0% in 2006 and gradually rose to 69,0% in 2015, while the between-groups inequality has decreased from 42,0% in 2006 to 31,0% by 2015. Furthermore, the contribution of black Africans to [the] within inequality [group] was the highest and has risen over time, while the contribution of the other three population groups remained more or less the same over the period.”

The second paragraph, on page 139, offers the explanation for why “within-group inequality” [within each of the apartheid races still embedded in all statistics in 2019] has grown while the “between-group” inequality has declined:

“Given that social status is often passed through family, it is important to look at what is happening with intergenerational mobility. Arden Finn and Murray Leibbrandt, in their paper, The Evolution and Determination of Earnings Inequality in Post-apartheid, showed that, once children enter the labour market, nine out of 10 from the poorest families still occupy the same place in the earnings distribution as their parents. This … very high labour market immobility … reflects the transmission of disadvantage across generations for parents at the lower end of the earnings distribution. The correlation between parents and children’s earnings is somewhat lower in the middle of the distribution. It is interesting to note that this correlation increases again for fathers towards the top of the distribution. Children of top-earning fathers have a 70% probability of being top earners themselves. This shows very strong transmission of advantage from one generation to the next at the top end of the labour market.”

These two paragraphs should be unremarkable, for they do no more than apply 101 sociology: that intergenerational inequalities are reproduced as a natural part of the natural reproduction of society. This continues unless subject to interference external to the complex of these inherent transmission processes that reproduce inequality.

Class inequalities are universal; a condition as old as the emergence of class divisions themselves. Moreover, these class divisions remain remarkably stable, in between the few revolutionary periods that disrupt them. At the same time, the specificities of the class divisions that individualise each country are shaped by each country’s history and geography.

The year 1994 was hardly a revolutionary moment in South Africa’s history. But it did disrupt the apartheid dualism of racial capitalism. Capitalism survived. The standard class inequalities of capitalism, however, were disrupted by the aspirations of those people who had not “joined the struggle to be poor”, as a leading member of the ANC, Smuts Ngonyama, put it, in 2004. Using their newly won political power, the aspirant rich imposed affirmative action and black economic empowerment (BEE) as disrupters of the class reproductions of apartheid to ensure that some Africans are no longer the prisoners of apartheid-designed poverty. These policies have been so successful that marked and growing inequality among black South Africans now figure in research findings. At the other end, “the transmission of disadvantage across generations”, ensures that the majority of the “disadvantaged” remain black people, for they form 80% of the total population. This natural reproduction of advantage/disadvantage similarly explains why white people (largely) remain in the highly privileged position they occupied in 1994.

This basic sociology, along with the demographics of the country’s population, explains why South Africa might, at a first, very shallow glance, appear to be colour coded.

But, to go beyond this mere description of South African inequality — in terms of which the majority of the poor remain black and the majority of white people remain rich — to provide, that is, the validation of the seemingly obvious, everyday truism of racialised inequality, requires vigorous and comprehensive analysis. Yet, it is precisely this analysis that is still wanting. In its place, we have nothing but assertions. A race-based analysis — even a partial one — would, additionally, need to explain why and how the racism that supposedly keeps the majority of black people poor simultaneously produces, and reproduces, a growing class of rich black people.

The statutorily promoted emergence of the upwardly mobile black elite is a notable success story. Yet, it is kept in the shadows. Could this strange silence be because the facts are contrary to the needs of the still far from satisfied black rich? Could it be that the black rich, rejoicing in the normal class reproductions that leave a permanency of black poverty, use that fortuitous condition to prove that “transformation” has still a long way to go before it is deracialised?

It does seem that precisely because affirmative action and BEE can never dislodge the permanence of black poverty, that poverty serves as a most effective battle cry for permanently more affirmative action and BEE. Accordingly, rather than addressing the inequity of capitalist produced poverty, the black rich are compelled to retain the apartheid categories that, being so deeply embedded in our self-identities, continue to keep us locked in the apartheid-world of racial separateness.

Research revealing the dramatic increase in (class) inequality within the black population is — whether consciously or not — not welcome. Even the statistician general, ce, who published the Inequality Trends report, has no difficulty in ignoring his own research. TimesLive quotes him say that South African inequality remains “heavily racialised”.

Jeff Rudin is a research associate at the Alternative Information and Development Centre

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Jeff Rudin 1
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