South Africa marks a decade of freedom

Progress in many areas, but legacy of inequality runs deep
From Africa Renewal: 
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To help reduce shortages of housing for poor blacks, some 1.6 mn new homes have been built in the last decade. Photo: iAfrika Photos/Eric Miller

Ten years ago, South Africa's first democratic election brought an end to one of the world's most reviled systems of racial domination. For the first time, representatives of the country's oppressed African majority took the reins of power. Despite fears by many whites that the new authorities might seek vengeance, the government of President Nelson Mandela instead pursued a path of national unity and reconciliation.

"We chose what seemed impossible," Mr. Thabo Mbeki, the current president, said on 27 April 2004, the tenth anniversary of that historic election. "To have done otherwise would have condemned all our people, black and white, to a bloody and catastrophic conflict. We are proud that every day now, black and white South Africans discover that they are, after all, one another's keeper."

While democracy is now more entrenched and racial tensions have been reduced in political life, South Africa has not yet been able to surmount its deep social and economic divisions. There remains an enormous gap between the haves and the have--nots, acknowledges President Mbeki; there are in effect two economies "without a connecting staircase." Overcoming the political legacy of the hated apartheid system has proved far easier than tackling its inherited economic and social injustices.

Political and social advances

South Africa has fashioned a very open and inclusive political system. The country has a vocal and extensive independent press, there is broad freedom of political association and leaders can be openly criticized and are held to account for their conduct. The constitution, formulated after wide public discussion, is recognized by many human rights advocates as one of the most progressive in the world.

Despite South Africa's exceptionally violent past, it has made it through the first decade of freedom "without having experienced any violent racial conflict," noted an anniversary statement by the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Conscious efforts to promote women's participation in decision-making also were undertaken. In the third post-apartheid general election on 14 April -- in which the ANC won a 70 per cent majority -- the proportion of women parliamentarians edged up slightly, from 30 to 33 per cent. Only 10 other countries in the world have a higher percentage. The new cabinet has 21 female ministers and deputy ministers -- 41 per cent of the total. The ANC also has named women to fill four of the nine provincial premier posts.

When the ANC came to power in 1994, its election platform included the ambitious Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which set out sweeping social and economic reforms for the impoverished black majority. The RDP later lost its central place in the government's policy framework and the promises proved more difficult to fulfill than originally anticipated. Nevertheless, in his annual budget presentation to parliament on 18 February, Finance Minister Trevor Manuel was able to point to a number of achievements over the past decade, implemented in the spirit of the RDP:

  • 1.6 mn homes built
  • 700 new primary health clinics constructed and 212 upgraded; 215 mobile clinics established
  • clean water supplies extended to 9 million more people
  • the number of social welfare beneficiaries increased from 2.9 million to over 7.4 million
  • 56,000 classrooms built
  • school enrolment increased by 1.5 million (to 12 million), with broadly equal enrolment of girls and boys.

"But," Mr. Manuel continued, "we recognize that vulnerability remains deep-rooted, exacerbated by rising unemployment and the long shadows cast by the social dislocation and exclusion of the past."

AIDS and slow growth

Overcoming those "long shadows" has been made harder by the worsening of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The crisis was already looming a decade ago, but it has since reached the scale of a national tragedy. South Africa has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in Africa and the world. As of 2001, one out of every five adults was infected -- a total of 4.7 million people, not counting a quarter million HIV-positive children. Some 360,000 South Africans died that year alone, and the number of AIDS orphans rose to 660,000. By 2005, average life expectancy will have fallen to 47 years, from 60 years a decade ago.

In the 2004 budget, some R2.1 bn (US$300 mn) has been allocated for programmes to combat HIV/AIDS, including the provision of anti-retroviral medicines. However, many AIDS activists and other commentators have criticized the government for not acting sooner or more forcefully to tackle the problem.

Overall, economic growth has been slower than expected. In the mid-1990s, the government projected that the gross domestic product (GDP) should grow by an annual average of 3.8 per cent in order to achieve the ambitious social and economic objectives. But Mr. Manuel reported in February that the actual average over the past decade has been just 2.8 per cent.

The finance minister noted that South Africa's economy is strongly influenced by the global economy, which is "characterized by extraordinarily uneven growth." In particular, the economies of Western Europe -- South Africa's major trading partners -- are still growing at less than 1 per cent annually.

Nor has the domestic private sector responded as energetically as anticipated. Although private South African investment has grown over the past decade, it remains at a low level of about 16 per cent of GDP. This compares with nearly 30 per cent in the mid-1970s.

Unemployment and poverty

Slow growth and limited investment have in turn contributed to growing joblessness. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the country's largest labour federation, estimates that about 330,000 jobs had been lost in the private sector by 1999, mainly because of factory closures and retrenchments. On top of this, COSATU reported, the government's policy of privatizing some of its largest public-sector enterprises brought cuts of an additional 170,000 jobs.

With tens of thousands of new job seekers entering the labour market each year, the official unemployment rate has continued to rise. Between 1996 and 2002, it rose from 33 per cent to 41.8 per cent.

Important gains have been made in overcoming past inequalities in the labour market, in which the wages of white workers were often several times those of black workers, noted South Africa: Human Development Report 2003, published earlier this year by the UN Development Programme (UNDP). However, it continued, "employment opportunities remain inadequately low and are, therefore, unable to reverse or even slow the dominant trend of massive unemployment."

Most troubling, the UNDP report found, both poverty and income inequalities have been increasing. Some 21.9 million South Africans -- 48.5 per cent of the total population -- now fall below the national poverty line.

Citing a household income survey conducted in 2000, the UNDP report noted that the share of African households in the lowest fifth of the income scale grew from 29 per cent to 33 per cent between 1995 and 2000. Meanwhile the share of white households in the top fifth increased from 60 per cent to 66 per cent. In addition, observes UNDP, there also has been "a rising polarization of income within all racial groups," especially among Africans and those designated as Coloureds and Indians.

Recognizing the dangers that such gaps might some day pose for South Africa's democracy, the government has begun to address them. The 2004 budget includes significant new allocations for public works programmes, skills development, job training, and industrial-capital formation.

Public Works Minister Stella Sigcau reported in late May that the government's R15 bn public works programme will aim to build essential infrastructure and in the process create a million new jobs. The government's long-term goal is to increase overall growth and investment levels, so as to halve the unemployment rate by 2014. In addition, the government is pledging to increase the pace of land allocations to poor rural Africans and to move more carefully in privatizing state enterprises.

COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi welcomed this "recent shift" in the government's broad economic policy and cited it as a factor in the labour federation's support for the ANC in the April general election.

"None of the great social problems we have to solve is capable of resolution outside the context of the creation of jobs and the alleviation and eradication of poverty," said President Mbeki.