/ 8 February 2023

Here’s an honest response, Professor Jansen: You’re off the mark

2019 11 14 Jonathanjansen
Professor Jonathan Jansen. Photo: Supplied

A few days ago, Professor Jonathan Jansen posed this question “Be honest, are you better off now than under apartheid?” I wasn’t sure what to make of this acerbic thought at first: genuine or deep irony? 

The good professor, with brazen boldness, compares apartheid and democratic South Africa in a Twitter poll by him and from this concludes that we were all better off under apartheid because the country’s overall infrastructure (electricity, roads and so on) was better. You could easily mistake this for a scene from The Boondocks. It may be simply my educational background, but this is absurd.

Let me explain for those suffering from deliberate amnesia.

South Africa’s apartheid era, which lasted until the early 1990s, was a time of institutionalised racial segregation and economic discrimination against the country’s majority black population. The apartheid government implemented a range of policies that effectively restricted the economic opportunities and mobility of black people, including limited access to education, restricted land ownership and strict labour laws that prevented them from working in certain industries and occupations.

In contrast, today’s post-apartheid South Africa has seen significant progress in addressing the economic inequalities of the past, although major problems remain. The government has implemented policies aimed at promoting black economic empowerment and increasing access to education and employment opportunities for black South Africans. 

One of the most significant changes has been the growth of a black middle class. This has been facilitated by increased access to education and the removal of many of the restrictions on black people’s participation in the economy. Today, black South Africans are increasingly able to start their own businesses, hold management positions in large corporations and attain professional qualifications in fields such as law, medicine and engineering.

But major inequalities still persist. Unemployment remains high, particularly among black youth, and poverty levels remain higher for black people compared to other racial groups. Furthermore, income disparities between black and white South Africans persist, with white South Africans still having significantly higher average incomes.

Jansen’s point ignores the apartheid government’s systematic and deliberate annihilation of black South Africans, and instead cherry-picks the good quality of infrastructure as the (implicit) silver lining. So, let’s talk about infrastructure.

During apartheid, the infrastructure of South Africa was woefully inadequate — for the majority black population. A concerted effort was made by the democratic state to improve the country’s infrastructure. Basic services such as electricity and water, which had been largely unavailable or of poor quality, were improved. A study by the department of planning, monitoring and evaluation shows that access to electricity increased from 50% of households in the last year of apartheid to more than 86% in 2013-14, a significant reduction in the number of households without access. It is also worth mentioning that new power stations — such as Kusile and Medupi — were constructed and some older ones shut down by the apartheid government were reactivated by the democratic state to meet the increased demand.

Like many South Africans, I agree that while there are still many problems facing the country — blackouts, rising electricity costs and some roads in desperate need of attention. Despite these problems, it is impossible to equate the quality of infrastructure that catered for a minority population during apartheid with the quality of infrastructure that must now support an expanding majority population and the overall economic growth in a democratic dispensation. 

The apartheid government spent a disproportionate amount of money on infrastructure that benefited the white minority and propped up the apartheid rule. All of this was to the disadvantage and deliberate economic marginalisation of the majority black population. It should come as no surprise that the legacy infrastructure cannot keep up with the demands of a more inclusive and diverse economy in the modern, democratic period. 

The unforeseen surge in the post-apartheid economy challenged decades of planning in the and the demand for electricity far outpaced supply, which was further exacerbated by pre-1994 decisions to shut down certain power stations. 

The standard of many roads have not kept up with demand. Where they used to cater for a smaller vehicle population, the standard of many roads has deteriorated with the increase in vehicles because of rising prosperity in the democratic era. 

Yes, poor maintenance is a factor. But we simply cannot ignore past injustices (the consequences of which can be seen in every aspect of our lives) and the fact that apartheid South Africa was a state for the minority few, with far fewer constraints and demands on its infrastructure than democratic South Africa has to bear.

Professor Jansen’s point glosses over all of these facts.

I find it incomprehensible that some would claim we thrived under oppression simply because we had better roads and electricity. Putting the infrastructure problems on the same level as the apartheid government’s outright atrocities (physically, economically, and psychologically) against black people is preposterous.

Life for black South Africans has improved since the end of apartheid, but significant difficulties such as unemployment, income disparities and poverty remain. To address these ongoing challenges, the government, private sector and civil society must all work together. 

Perhaps the professor’s question was not intended for a black South African like myself to respond to. Anyway, I will write a time filled with tragic tales of life under apartheid for black South Africans and hand it over to Professor Jansen.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.