Reconciliation versus inequality: Which does SA’s future hold?

Drastic change followed the birth of democracy in South Africa, but continuing poverty poses a threat to national unity, writes SANA RAIS.

This year, South Africa celebrates the 16th Day of Reconciliation since the transition to democracy in 1994. During this time, the country has experienced drastic change, which has at the same time been too slow for many citizens. South Africa has exceeded many expectations, yet failed to meet others altogether.

Reconciliation Day reminds us that the democratic transition of 1994 heralded the emergence of a nation willing to forgive and move forward, but at a high cost. As described by Dr Cherrel Africa in a recent article for the SA Reconciliation Barometer, many South Africans have begun to once again question the compromises made in the negotiated transition of the 1990s.

Millions of South Africans continue to live in material circumstances largely unchanged from those under apartheid, and have experienced constrained benefits from political freedom. Disillusionment and doubt have been cast over government institutions, political parties, and the larger reconciliatory project overall. Discontent has been demonstrated through protests and strikes around the country, which have continued across several government administrations and throughout Jacob Zuma’s presidency. Beyond the direct consequences of this ‘rebellion of the poor’, the alienation of large cohorts of the population will further erode confidence in the state.

Economic growth has contributed to overall reductions in poverty levels. However, socioeconomic inequality has continued to increase, and according to the IJR’s annual SA Reconciliation Barometer survey, is consistently identified as the greatest source of social division in the country, above race, HIV/AIDS and party membership.

Inequality has in fact become most pronounced within rather than between race groups, and particularly among black South Africans, as access to employment, education and entrepreneurial opportunities have grown a new middle class.

Speaking at a recent workshop in Cape Town, IJR founding director Professor Charles Villa-Vicencio warned that people are now becoming impatient. He suggested that South Africa’s ‘honeymoon period’ is over, and citizens are now more demanding, less polite and less tolerant about the lack of concrete delivery they see from government.

Villa-Vicencio views this as a positive development: a testament to the strength of South Africa’s democracy and its growing democratic culture. However, what happens when these concerns go unaddressed? Should citizens simply resign themselves to living with chronic inequality?

The growing gap between South Africa’s rich and poor poses a threat to future prospects for national unity and reconciliation. As the currency of these ideals begins to fade in public and policy discourse, questions remain: who must reconcile now, and more importantly, why should they?

Reconciliation is not a linear trajectory, nor is it a once-off event. It is also not inevitable. It is a process that requires considerable further effort in addressing the problems that fracture South African society today. Government has demonstrated the will to combat these problems, introducing economic development and anti-poverty programmes, and allocating funds to support them. Yet while these are positive changes, the country has not as yet managed to design and implement a combination of these policies and programmes that will most effectively bring about sustainable change.

Guided by the Constitution, programmes and policies of this kind have attempted to bring about ‘substantive equality’, which takes into account disparity in access to resources across the population and requires strategies to rectify these conditions in a deliberate and targeted manner. Resultant reforms and interventions have included measures such as black economic empowerment and land redistribution, which have been implemented with positive effects for some. However, in practice these policies have been overly selective in their targeting of specific segments of the most disadvantaged populations: while the growth of an established black middle class is positive, this change has had little effect on large-scale poverty alleviation.

Educational enrollment levels have improved substantively since 1994. However, educational service delivery has languished in many respects, particularly in rural areas. Further, South Africa has a burgeoning youth population. With approximately 3 million people between the ages of 18 and 24 out of school and unemployed, and many more joining their ranks every year, the lack of work and livelihood opportunities for youth has serious implications for social stability. The experiences and outlook of this changing demographic will also alter political debates and allegiances to come, as well as social cohesion and prospects for reconciliation and national unity. South Africa is known for its social capacity for compromise, but will it now compromise on its youth by letting them fall through the cracks of the system?

Socioeconomic inequality has the potential to further fracture already-tenuous social relationships, but the trend of a growing divide can still be countered by more effective work towards substantive equality through further  development of the education system, expanded social grants and other safety nets for the poor, and above all, sustainable job creation.

Interim concessions and modest improvements may hold back discontent for a while yet – but assumptions of acceptance and complacency by affected South Africans are short-sighted, and certainly overlook the country’s historical legacy of active citizenship. Difficult decisions must also be made about which problems will receive priority in terms of attention and resources. Further progress in the process of reconciliation can be made through addressing this socioeconomic divide and demonstrating to citizens that they have not been waiting in vain.

Sana Rais is currently completing her masters degree at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, and is a research intern in the Political Analysis programme at the IJR.

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