The New Apartheid

Now that I’m one month into my stay as a Fulbright Scholar, my first major insight into contemporary South African society is this: the people have triumphed over racial apartheid, but economic apartheid is still getting stronger.

Apartheid had two central characteristics.  First, the oppression of an entire group of people, to the benefit of another group.  Second, the physical isolation of the disempowered group, enforced by both law and culture.

Racial apartheid is now abolished.  There is certainly still a great deal of informal segregation.  Many private schools are still predominantly or exclusively white, some neighborhoods are known to be unwelcoming of blacks, and people’s social circles overwhelmingly tend to reflect their own skin color.  But the law is aggressively promoting black empowerment.  Political power is now dominated by the black majority, and that is increasingly the case in the commercial sector as well.

But it is striking how firmly apart-ness seems to have reformed itself along class lines, at least in Johannesburg.  Middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods have high walls and barbed wire to keep out the poor, who are allowed in only as domestic servants.  Wealthy people (including myself) travel by car from one fenced-in island of prosperity to another: gated neighborhoods, office buildings, malls.  Space is quite rigidly defined by class, creating an economic apartheid.

It seems I’m not the only one to make this observation.  This week I participated in a workshop of organizations promoting the interests of poor people in Jo’burg’s inner city. Two overwhelming themes emerged from participants’ comments.

First, the socio-economic transformation which was promised at the end of apartheid has not materialized.  Things have improved greatly for the black elite and middle-class, but the desperately poor are still desperately poor.  Unemployment is up, many children are still not in school, there is no minimum wage.  Real income among the black poor has dropped in the last ten years.  Concrete constitutional promises — such as free education and free water service — are simply not being delivered.

Second, there is intense dissatisfaction with the quality of democratic input into policy-making.  Legally, all policy decisions must be made through public consultation and popular input.  But in practice, the workshop participants uniformly complained, the agencies do not listen to the poor.  Policy decisions come from the top, and the consultation forums merely inform poor communities of decisions that have already been taken.

Many of these policies turn out to be very harmful to the poor.  One instance of this is the implementation of prepaid water meters in poor communities.

These seemed like a good idea in theory, but the middle-class policy-makers who designed and approved it had no conception of how it would impact the lives of the poor.  They didn’t assess what realistic water needs were in an urban setting.  They didn’t take into account the challenges faced by people with irregular income, who might be cut off from water for days or weeks due to simple cash flow issues.  They didn’t conceive of the special difficulties faced by families caring for AIDS victims, who need extra water for washing to cope with the accompanying diarrhea.

All of these blind spots could have been corrected by true consultation with the population who would have been affected by the policy.  It simply was not done.

Workshop participants identified numerous other policies which had devastating effects on the poor.  The city has forbidden door-to-door sales and street-corner trading in most residential neighborhoods, effectively criminalizing a major livelihood strategy.  The city’s Better Buildings program would have illegally evicted 70,000 inner city poor from their current homes to make way for up-scale apartments, with no alternative accommodation planned for the newly homeless.  (Implementation of this policy has been blocked by a CALS court case.)
Meanwhile public schools have 45 pupils per classroom.  Even there, poor parents must still pay for transportation, uniforms, books, lunches, and — in many cases — part of the tuition.  There is no minimum wage, no plan for affordable housing, no plan for public health.  Entire buildings have been disconnected from water and electricity because the buildings’ owners owe debts — and the city won’t provide tenants with their own metered accounts.  It seems the real agenda is to drive the residents out.

The overall impression I got from the workshop is that Johannesburg city government not only does little to help the poor, it seems actively involved in putting the squeeze on them.  More than one participant complained that the current situation felt like a new apartheid, defined by class rather than race.

It all seems very depressing, particularly as someone who felt so optimistic about the possibilities for transformation when I was here five years ago.  What happened to all the commitment to bring about a radically different South Africa?  Today it seems to be business as usual, only with a different set of people at the top.  The poor people’s organizations at this workshop see themselves as having very little power to force change. Elections come only once every five years.  They organize march after march, but get little media coverage and even less political response.

The one cause for hope seems to be the South African constitution, which is strongly pro-poor.  Many of the policies these organizations complained about are clearly illegal in terms of the Bill of Rights.   But these groups don’t have the resources to hire a lawyer every time their constitutional rights are violated.

For this reason, South Africa is an incredibly exciting place to be a human rights lawyer right now.  There is both intense need, and incredible potential, for socio-economic rights litigation to advance the interests of the poor.  The biggest barrier is not an inadequate legal framework or an unfriendly judiciary, but simply the limited pool of lawyers able and willing to bring these cases, and the financial resources to support them.


4 responses to “The New Apartheid

  1. The economic apartheid, the fencing off of the wealthy, is largely a function of crime. A non-negotiable for the rich is living in safety, this is achieved either by leaving South Africa or staying here and putting up security.

  2. You hit the nail right on the head. Nothing has changed except that the haves and have-nots are no longer race law defined.

    Constitutions – how safe are they ?. They are never safe from the politicians anywhere. I can only assume what US citizens would do but would we, S Africans as a whole stand-up if we need to protect ours ?

  3. You’re so right, babe. Check out the Economist’s country report on South Africa from last spring, it’s really helpful to bring some of the economic, political and legal issues together. xoxo – J

  4. Horacio Javier Etchichury

    I agree with the diagnose: economic apartheid keeps alive and kicking.
    The African National Congress was aware of the problem when in 1955 adopted the Freedom Charter: “The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people;
    The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole;
    All other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the wellbeing of the people” (

    I’m an Argentinean Con Law teacher, and my country’s Constitution has also a great potential, since it has several socioeconomic rights. That’s why Argentina is also a great place to be a human rights lawyer.

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