Inequality in South Africa's Cities. Evidence from the Slums and Wealthiest Estates

South Africa is the world's most unequal society. Around informal settlements, there is no electricity there. Sanitation, it's not that good. There are times when there's no water. You could throw a stone and it would land in one of the highest concentrations of wealth areas in the country. On this side, you have one of the darkest, scariest, informal settlements and townships in this country. About 10% of the population, which is oftentimes white, own in the range of 80% of the country's wealth. It's been 30 years since the end of apartheid, the structural system of racial segregation that nearly ripped South Africa apart. We are going forward. The march towards freedom and justice is irreversible. Yet, for many black South Africans, the story of optimism and renewal associated with Nelson Mandela's coming to power has not materialized. 30 million people - well over half the population - are still living in poverty. 

One of the main reasons inequalities have lasted is how hard it has been to undo racist urban design. The legacy of apartheid is not a theoretical philosophical conversation. It's a thing that people still live in this country. We are all fighting to get out of this poverty that we are in. I cherish the idea of a new South Africa where all South Africans are equal. I think one must comprehend apartheid not just from a separation of races, but understanding the reasons behind that separation. Apartheid was really about an economic model. The model was to carefully manage the cheap labor. The following is a map of Johannesburg and what you can see very distinctively is the mining belt that has formed a major barrier between the north of the city and the south of the city. Johannesburg is a city raised on gold. The center of Johannesburg was the discovery of the first gold. Immediately, around that you got tent camps of laborers developing, and the mining bosses and so on would live a little further away. 

Until 1994, South Africa was run by colonial and white minority governments. They enacted a string of laws and legislation that diminished black land rights and enforced segregation along racial lines. In 1948, the National Party came to power on the policy of apartheid. Keeping races separate allowed the government to maintain the status quo of white supremacy, as well as exploit black labor for industrial development. With the growing urban centers, and growing industrial areas, people were moving off the land to try to get job opportunities in the cities. These townships were very carefully designed. You would have white middle-class areas, white higher-income areas, then you'd have your white lower-income areas, you would have buffer zones and then you would have your other racial groupings and every settlement and city in South Africa could relate to this conceptual pattern.


Even if blacks were officially citizens of South Africa they could only come to White areas if they had work and they had to live in separate townships outside the white cities. The townships - and informal settlements that sprung up around them were typically overcrowded and had minimal infrastructure. These settlements did not have any significant commercial shopping facilities. They certainly had no employment opportunities within them. As a result, people were effectively only resident there and then had to travel to any employment opportunities. So effectively, the townships were dormitory towns. While apartheid is long gone, forms of segregation remain due to the vast economic disparity between the majority black and the minority white populations. 

Thembisa, the township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, where Levy Ndlovu lives, is still in many ways a dormitory town. Most of the people in Thembisa work outside of Thembisa. Mostly it's black people who reside here in Thembisa. we mostly focus on spending money on basic needs, you know, like food, sanitation, transport money to work and that's mostly it, just to survive. For work, Levy travels to Midrand, a suburb with malls, businesses, and more white neighborhoods. Forced to take minibus taxis because of the failing train system his journey costs a large proportion of his income. I spend almost a thousand rand in a month. A thousand rand is a lot. Here in Thembisa, I can make a lot of things. compared to someone who lives in Midrand is not the same, because you would find that in Midrand when someone is paying, maybe 500 rand for their phone and 500 rand for their router for Wi-Fi, it's nothing to them. But for me, it's everything. With the standard of living around here, calculating all the expenditures in a month, they would spend about 60 or 70% of their income when it comes to rent, food, and transport. In Thembisa, the population is 99% black. This suburb near the city center, Parkview, is 64% white. The average monthly income in Parkview is nearly ten times that of Thembisa. 

It's a similar pattern throughout Johannesburg as well as other South African towns and cities. The question is, you know, why do we still have significant, spatial patterns that reflect the apartheid spatial planning, in 2024? When we came out of apartheid, South Africans, I think we were very hopeful. I think the conditions of safety that were created were very inspiring. We were creating these powerful symbolic narratives about reconciliation, about wholeness, but very quickly, that narrative began to wear off because the material conditions of people's lives were not changing. In 1994, Nelson Mandela's ANC party ran on the slogan 'A better life for all' and they immediately set to work on elevating the poorest of South Africans. The priority of the ANC government was redress, which was how to transform the spatial environment and bring dignity to people after the indignity, of suffering under apartheid. Therefore, one of the very first pieces of development programs that was introduced in 1994 was the Reconstruction and Development Program, the RDP program. It was a case of rolling out low-cost housing for people. We want to build one million houses during the next five years. 

When the ANC took power, as many as seven million South Africans were either homeless or squatting. The problem Mandela's new government faced was finding cheap enough land to build all those homes on. What tended to happen is that they found peripheral areas, often agricultural land on the periphery of the cities, that they could quickly convert and purchase at that price and rolled out these new housing settlements. One of the unintended consequences of that was, in a sense, a reinforcement of the apartheid spatial patterns, of having the poorest residents located on the periphery of the city. The entire focus was on the development of houses and not on the development of what we would call integrated settlements, which involve schools, clinics, cultural activities, etc. These settlements, or townships, are on the edge of cities and are predominantly inhabited by the poorest, who mostly tend to be black. Many people living in townships often still feel stuck in them for many different kinds of reasons. But a big part of that reasoning is economics. 

The ability to find a well-paying job that affords you the possibility to leave the townships is incredibly hard for many people in South Africa, especially people who have not had access to education. Living so far away from where you go to school or where the good schools are on the other side of the mine dumps, with the good jobs on the other side of the mine dumps with the good malls for shopping and entertainment are places this identity inside of you that you don't belong there and that you are just visiting. Having grown up since then and having moved to the other side of the mine dumps. I think what has been interesting to discover for me was the sense of time and how much time living in the townships takes away from you. Suddenly you can think about love and care and loving your job. It opened up the way that I could see and understand myself and what is possible, as a human being. Despite the lingering damage of the Apartheid era, there has been some progress in the decades since. Services such as sanitation, access to water, and electricity improved dramatically alongside the political liberation that was introduced with Mandela's government. However, his party, the ANC, has been beset by allegations of corruption and state capture in the decades since. A state-led commission estimated around $27 billion of public money was tainted by corruption. 

During President Jacob Zuma's nine years in office, corruption exploded. You look at the black people's lives, the unemployment crisis, the education crisis, the energy crisis, you know, you can go on and on and on. Young people don't feel saved. There has been a big turn in terms of mood and hopefulness about the nation-ness of this country. A lot of the failures in transforming this country have often been placed at the feet of the ANC. The end of apartheid started something special, but it hasn't fully delivered. It has left ordinary South Africans torn. On the one hand, thankful, having known the horror of life before. On the other hand, frustrated with what might and should have been. For people who've been in those times of apartheid, those people have experienced the hardest time of their lives. They've experienced the hardest times of their life. With my parents who have experienced both times, I'd say they are happy, they are at peace, that what they've been fighting for has now come true. The change has been good. It's not all people that have changed at the same pace, but people have been changing. But the salary that I'm getting, it's not going to be enough for me to make my dreams come true. If I'm going to have kids, I don't want them to start where I started.

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