When South Africa transitioned into democracy in 1994, socio-economic conditions were disheartening, especially amongst Blacks. Nelson Mandela’s democratic government faced an enormous challenge in eradicating the legacy of apartheid and improving the lives of millions of South Africans.
Twenty-two years into democracy, the question of whether black South Africans have made any socio-economic progress remains highly contested. People like Mohammad Amir Anwar, and political parties like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by Julius Malema, argue that the economy is still controlled by whites – and that blacks still have no ownership or control.
These and other like-minded people in politics, academia, the media, and the public in general, believe that black people have not benefited from South Africa’s post-1994 economy. But when one takes an objective look at the statistics, it’s crystal clear that remarkable progress has been made since 1994.
Nevertheless, it is understandable why some South Africans may feel Blacks have not made progress. With levels of unemployment having reached 27.7%, the highest in 14 years, according to Statistics South Africa, government corruption, and a weak economy that grew by 0.3% last year, one might easily be tempted to believe that not much economic advancement has been made by the black community.
In comparison to other BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), South Africa is doing terribly on employment. Brazil’s unemployment rate is 13.6%, Russia’s is 6%, India’s is 5% and China’s remains at 4%. Blacks account for the biggest proportion of South Africa’s unemployed.
In 2016, South Africa was ranked the world’s second most miserable country by Bloomberg – due to its very high unemployment rate, the unofficial rate being 36.4%, according to Statistics South Africa.
Beyond the reality of unemployment and poverty, however, it remains important to look at the overall picture of how South Africa has advanced over the past twenty-two years. There are a number of critical areas that warrant attention in gauging whether Blacks have made any progress post-1994.
In education, enrolment in tertiary institutions has shown significant improvement since 1994. Amongst university graduates in 2011, 63% were black, compared to just 28% in 1995. Access to higher education has increased, with total university enrolments between 1995 and 2012 growing from 570 000 to 945 765. Enrolment of African students has increased markedly, while white enrolment has decreased.
Apartheid policy deliberately limited education for Blacks. The apartheid government’s mission was to ensure that racial inequality persisted, and that blacks received a third-class education.
Education has been the biggest factor in developing nations in human history. For a nation to prosper, getting education right is key.
South Africa’s prosperity is dependent on its education. Doubtless, basic education faces challenges – but it is fair to say that, on balance, the opening up of education opportunities has had a huge positive impact on society since 1994.
Because of increased access to education, the black middle class continues to grow. For the first time in 2008, the size of the black middle class surpassed that of whites.
During apartheid, many black business men and women had to overcome the apartheid odds in pursuing their businesses under the system’s oppressive laws. Notable among them are Richard Maponya and Herman Mashaba, both of whom faced hurdles aimed at impeding their success in business. Post-1994, the list of black business men and women has grown across a range of industries.
Black South Africans account for more than 78% of new businesses formed since 2002. Such growth was not possible under apartheid’s repressive policies.
Between 1996 and 2012, real per capita income for the whole country grew by 24.7%. Over that period, it grew by 90.2% for Blacks. Such impressive numbers cannot be overlooked when debating whether black South Africans have made progress since the fall of apartheid.
The improvement in standard of living measures must also be taken into account. Blacks now account for more than half of medical aid membership and own more than a third of the stocks on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE).
The proportion of judges who are black has doubled from 30% to 63%, even though the proportion of black lawyers remains much lower.
This remarkable progress of Blacks, post-apartheid, is evidence that a lot has changed for the better for the black community in South Africa.
This is not to say that South Africans are not facing serious socio-economic challenges; the scale of protests over service delivery and corruption across South Africa’s townships is evidence that a lot still needs to be done.
Social grants remain a huge burden on the already strained state. Over 17 million South Africans receive social grants. This number is unsustainable in a country with a small tax base, and a significant factor in South Africa’s budget deficit – which, in his February 2017 budget speech, former minister of finance Pravin Gordhan revealed was 3.1% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
The biggest challenge faced by the country’s political leadership is how to get grant recipients out of welfare and into jobs, because job creation is the only sustainable way to improve the lives of the millions of South Africans struggling to make ends meet.
Many, especially in politics, claim that 80% of farm land is owned by white families. This statistic has been refuted by AfricaCheck. AfricaCheck’s conclusion is that “79% of South Africa is privately owned, (including) land owned by individuals, companies and trusts, and … all urban real estate and agricultural and mining land in South Africa. This would include land owned by both black and white South Africans”.
Post-1994, South Africa’s mission has been to uplift the lives of the millions left behind due to the legacy of apartheid, a system that denied them a decent education and the opportunities to freely make a meaningful contribution to their country.
Overcoming this legacy and creating an inclusive economy was the huge task facing the African National Congress (ANC) when it came to power in 1994, and, in many ways – though there is a lot it has failed to do – the ANC has achieved a great deal in creating an environment in which Blacks have been able to move out of poverty.
Statistical evidence bears this out, and it is necessary to recognize the progress made since 1994, especially amongst Blacks. The notion that nothing has changed is misleading.
Written by Phumlani M. Majozi, a policy fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica