Inequality and Context: A Perspective from South Africa
Will be 1400 words
The Earth is a pretty small place if you think about it. There are currently over six
billion people inhabiting a landmass that covers about 150 million square kilometers.
However, as proportionate as the land to people ratio is, the landmass of the Earth is
divided by naturally impenetrable obstacles. In the view of anthropology, these obstacles
are what created both the physical and cultural variability of the human experience today.
However, since about 1500 AD, the ability to overcome these physical obstacles has
become increasingly common and as such, there is a growing understanding that we are
now more than ever becoming a part of a global culture. Colonialism
I recently had the chance to explore this phenomenon as I spent a month in South
Africa taking part in archaeological field research. Due to the nature of the work that I
was a part of, I had a unique opportunity to almost completely avoid the standard tourist
fare that some may argue detracts from ones ability to absorb the true cultural milieu of a
foreign place. While in Sub-Sahara Africa however, having such a transparent experience
is not so much the culturally enlightening adventure that a world traveler will so often
will speak of, but rather a sobering view of extreme social inequality.
According to the South African Regional Poverty Network, there approximately
57% of the country’s population is currently living below the poverty line. In the
provinces of Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, this number soars above 70%. A staggering
statistic that for a Western traveler represents an unfathomable degree of (). The severity
of issue was made obvious within the first few hours of my arrival while leaving
downtown Johannesburg on the highway as the landscape was saturated with a shocking
ubiquity of shanties, stretching for what seemed like kilometers. Prior to this trip, in my
mind the word “shanty” had always been succeeded by “village” and drew images of
small groups of unfortunate people. However, after viewing what could only be described
as cities of patchwork houses, any preconceived notions that I had about the limits of
poverty in a state society were quickly put to rest.
Having 29 more days to consider this sight, which we saw in almost regular
intervals as we passed various urban areas during our first day of travel, I spent a lot of
time thinking about how so many people could be subject of such incredible inequality,
and most importantly, how do the 57% raise themselves out of such a state of living.
Unfortunately, these numbers are skewed towards populations in or around urban
centers. Rural areas of South African provinces experience only a limited amount of
economic opportunity and as such are highly restricted in their ability to improve the
social situation. In the city of Kimberly, a former diamond mining town on the fringes of
the Kalahari sands in the North Cape province, where we stayed for much of the trip it is
not uncommon for local workers, who usually walk into town from the bordering
shanties, to earn the average equivalent of $7 CDN per day. This figure would normally
be meaningless without a social context to gauge by, however it becomes truly appalling
when one realizes that in urban areas of the country this number balloons to an average
$14,389 CDN per day for business CEOs. I cannot express in words how straining this
information was for me when I first heard it. One does not normally associate poverty in
Africa with social systems that are capable of supporting such an obscene class
dichotomy. There is no government regulation on labour, and as such no minimum wage,
trade unions, and not enough jobs to stimulate any sort of social or economic growth
outside of the larger cities. In fact, as a visiting scholar I quickly learned that it was both
my moral and social responsibility to create work for local laborers wherever possible. As
such, our laboratory was occupied no less than five local workers whose sole
responsibility was to label literally hundreds of boxes worth of archaeological samples.
As the need these people were in was clear, it was up to common decency to
dictate what change our work could provide for the people immediately around us.
However, this begs the question of how does one create meaningful and sustainable
improvements to the lives of 25 million people in South Africa?
Through the remainder of my stay in rural South Africa, I had many opportunities
to informally interview the people that we met and worked with. The complexity of the
social situation in South Africa was quickly made apparent to me through the numerous
history lessons that I received after even my most modest prodding.
At the abolishment of apartheid in 1994, South Africa technically became a
racially egalitarian state as the predominantly black African National Congress political
party took control from the previous racist white government. However, even a casual
observer can see that the country has caught its heel on its transition into the post-colonial
world. As the influence of colonial domination and cultural hegemony run centuries deep,
strong racial tension is still very evident throughout the state. This is further fueled by the
fact that the majority of the impoverished in South Africa are of non-white populations.
Though that is not to say that the 43% of the country that is considered above the poverty
line is not of mixed ethnicity, the substantial social dichotomy between rich and poor is
easily observed along racial lines.
Unfortunately, there as been a retroactive revolt to the abuses of the apartheid
period has resulted in an explosion of violent crime, which has only been fueled by this
social situation. Recently South Africa was independently ranked second in the world for
both assault and rape by the UN. The now infamous image of the South African gated
community has resulted from this, as throughout the country it is highly uncommon to
see property not protected by walls, razor wire, bared windows, and attack dogs.
However, as this may paint an image of hopelessness the issue of inequality is
being addressed by the current ANC government. It is hoped that by attempting to
stimulate economic growth and a sense of nationalism, that….
However, the ANC’s approach to poverty has been called highly ineffectual by critics as
a combination of extreme corruption and incompetence at the provincial and municipal
level has left rural areas spinning their wheels. In many cases, due to a local
government’s inability to create sustainable social improvements, instead of moving
people out of shanties villages, they have been made more permanent by extending
electricity and sewage lines out to reach the township areas. Ironically, this assistance is
only solidifying the current social class dichotomy.
Furthermore, the national HIV/AIDS crisis is seen to be a primarily motivated by poor
living conditions and ineffective social assistance.
So then how will it be fixed?
Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, has frequently been upbraided for his views on the
HIV/AIDS catastrophe in South Africa. He has denied that the two are connected and has
done little to stem the flow of new infections.
Perhaps worse though is the involvement of senior members of government and officials
of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in significant business deals linked to the
state -- which has created the perception of a new elite benefiting inappropriately from
-Weak povincial govt.
-held to low standards
-poor but functional/not rascist govt
-temporary assistance vs. govnt. Change
How is help helping these people? Is it even? Is it appropriate to think of?
Stunned by the natural beauty of the country.
It is almost sad that in such a pristine natural environment that foreign human contact has
so negatively influenced local culture.
I was shocked, though not in the sense that I was gawking at the conditions that the
people lived in, but at myself for I had realized that I had been imposing my own foreign
social understanding upon them. I immediately realized how dangerous an imported
social view could be to an area in need. There is no standard for which one must judge a
“better society” but rather only different ones. By the importing of social mores from an
outside system, the cultural adaptation to those mores will not nessicarily come with