South Africa will remain a hugely unequal society for a long time

Professor Servaas van der Berg weighed in on the election-debate today, painting a discouraging picture for the future of South Africa. According to van der Berg, inequality in South Africa has moved beyond being a solely racial issue: inequality between groups now only makes up 35% of the income disparity, down from 61% in 1993. The force behind inequality in the country now is intra-group disparities, mostly driven by the emergent black middle class, which has grown from 300,000 to 3m between 1993 and 2012. Van der Berg notes that the lot of the poor has improved in the last 20 years, with the credit going to government policies such as the Child Support Grant.

While most white people are earning more now than they did at the end of Apartheid, lack of the Apartheid-era job security and smaller grants for less-educated whites are driving intra-group inequality.

After the transition from Apartheid, black voters expected better government services.  While the government was reasonably proficient in providing “hard services”, such as access to electricity and water, it still fares very poorly at supplying services such as healthcare and education:

“The limits of state capacity are clearest in the provision of “soft” services like healthcare and schooling. Shifts in public spending to provide more clinics and to equalise education spending did improve access and teacher-pupil ratios, but the quality of many of these services is abysmal. Many poor people with serious health conditions prefer to visit private practitioners at their own cost rather than use the low quality free public clinics. And education in most schools is so weak that South African primary school children on average perform worse on international tests than children from its much poorer neighbour, Swaziland.”

Van der Berg remains sceptical about the future of the country, expecting that income inequality will persist:

“High inequality probably will remain a feature of South African society for decades to come, at least until education and services radically improve and their benefits are felt in the labour market.”