In December I wrote a short post entitled, ‘Who wants to live forever?’, having been inspired by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, co-authors of ‘The 100-year life: Living and working in an age of longevity’. Six weeks later I’d flown to South Africa to begin a new chapter in my life. I’m now into the fourth month of my new adventure, living and studying in Cape Town and working towards an MPhil in Development Studies at UCT. If all goes to plan, I’ll be here for two years; lectures and coursework in 2018 and then a thesis next year.

Going back to studying after ten years’ working is a slightly surreal experience at times. I know hot-desking is all the rage right now, but there’s something reassuringly familiar about turning up to the office, and plonking yourself down at your desk, next to your pedestal, and heading down to the Cookie Bar/office kitchen for a cup of tea – we’re creatures of habit after all.

South Africa is a complicated place and I don’t have the experience or understanding to articulate it in any meaningful way. But, I can present my own opinions of what I’ve seen and felt so far. It’s a country of stark contrasts and pervasive daily inequalities, and, as a newcomer to the country, this is glaringly obvious.

In some ways I’ve become used to, perhaps even inured to, inequality. Walking through my home borough of Kensington and Chelsea, one is transported from multi-million-pound stucco houses to run-down housing estates where families struggle with the basic costs of living. Almost a year on since the devastating fire, the burnt out remains of Grenfell Tower serve as a daily reminder of the borough’s pervasive inequality.

Deep in the Southern hemisphere, tourists flock to Cape Town, South Africa’s Mother City, to enjoy spectacular scenery, endless blue skies and the warm Mediterranean climate. The city hosts some of the world’s best restaurants and bars, yet just twenty miles east of Cape Town lies Khayelitsha, a township home to 2.4 million people, many of whom live in cramped and unhygienic conditions, without access to running water. Rising inequality has been driven by a multitude of factors, such as financial and technological globalisation, changes to the labour market and a lack of redistribution in fiscal policy. Barack Obama’s words remain in my mind:

Inequality is the defining challenge of our time.

Barack Obama
UCT Campus where Abigail is studying

Nelson Mandela swept to power in 1994, signifying the end of apartheid and bringing democracy to the nation. However, taking a closer look, levels of inequality have remained relatively consistent. In fact, there has been no significant reduction in inequality at all. On first glance this is a surprising statistic. We hear of fewer people living in poverty and of a burgeoning middle class, so it would make sense that inequality has lessened but still the effects and consequences of this imbalance is felt across the country. Although South Africa is classified as an upper middle-income country, this is inherently misleading – one in four people are living with chronic hunger, below the survivalist food poverty line of R441 (approximately £26 or $35 USD) a month.

Decades of apartheid have left deep rifts across society, divided by racial lines. Blacks are overrepresented in poverty and underrepresented in terms of skilled employment and despite the Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2003 (BEE), the economy is white-dominated and land and business ownership is dominated by whites. Furthermore, the effects of apartheid’s unequal education system can still be felt today; particularly with regards to unemployment. The Bantu Education Act of 1953 enforced racially separate education facilities. In effect, whites were educated at Western standard schools, whereas black children were taught in inadequate schools, often by teachers with little or no training. A study conducted in 2001 by Bhorat and Leibbrandt, proved that education has an effect on black people’s participation in the workforce, their salary level, and even the likelihood of being employed in the first place. Huge swathes of the workforce are unskilled and the South African government is still trying to reverse years of racist policies that has had a profound effect on the quality of education nationwide.

If we are to discuss inequality or perceptions of inequality in contemporary South Africa we must be conscious of firmly established power structures where State policies have directly affected inequality for decades. The minority whites in power enforced explicit racial discrimination and deliberately limited the opportunities available for the black majority. Constitutionally, the dawn of democracy in South Africa criminalised this behaviour, but still there is not parity of wages between blacks and other races. In 1998 Thabo Mbeki (the then deputy President) described South Africa as divided into two nations ‘the one black, and the one white’.

Earlier this year South Africa elected Cyril Ramaphosa as the new leader of the African National Congress (the ANC). It is widely publicised that Ramaphosa is one of the richest men in the country, with an estimated wealth of $450 million. As Deputy President in 2016 Ramaphosa said that the government was ‘obsessed with empowering black South Africans’. The government rhetoric is that they are doing something to empower black South Africans and reduce inequality.

It is too simplistic to say whites are rich and blacks are poor; it is much more nuanced than that. Next year will mark 25 years of democracy in South Africa, and there is lots to celebrate but at the same time, there is lots that still needs to change. In Mandela’s words:

We recall our terrible past so that we can deal with it, forgiving where forgiveness is necessary - but not forgetting. By remembering, we can ensure that never again will such inhumanity tear us apart, and we can eradicate a dangerous legacy that still lurks as a threat to our democracy.

Nelson Mandela