Reflections of a socio-economically unequal South Africa – how COVID-19 exposed the realities

Nirmala Gopal
Prof Nirmala Gopal

Twenty-seven years into South Africa’s transformative democracy the unequal nature of our society is still so distinct.

My reflections and observations have primarily informed my writing since the beginning of COVID-19 which has proved to be a blessing in disguise for South Africa, facilitating the opportunity to expose the disparities between rich and poor, white and black, and men and women, while inadvertently coercing the State to audit its efforts and interventions in fulfilling its constitutional obligations to South Africans.

Millions of households and public schools have no or inadequate access to water and/or sanitation, eroding their constitutional right to dignity; yet, one of the more essential basic practices the National Command Council Committee mandates is washing hands to reduce the spread of the virus.

Is the State addressing all its people or only those with access to water and sanitation when it encourages frequent hand washing?   The stresses of using pit latrines must surely trump the focus of contracting the virus because of poor hygiene?

The lack of adequate water and sanitation is not just an enabler of the spread of the virus; it is an enabler for the continued cycle of poverty.

How can an unequal society heal from the deep divides when funds meant to narrow the poverty gap are being channelled into bank accounts of a select number of “influential politicians” – the same ones entrusted by poor communities to help them out their cycles of poverty? The funds were distributed to help create jobs and provide adequate housing, not expand the divide between the haves and have-nots in society!

According to Statistics South Africa, the heavily racialised and gender-biased labour market is a critical contributor to South Africa’s inequalities. My observations of the monopoly of specific labour sectors reinforce this notion of the labour market bias. The South African property market, for example, is highly racialised – one group of the population dominates the sale and registration, and transfer of properties, making good profits.

And gender bias sees female workers earn about 30% less on average than male workers, while men are more likely to be employed and have relatively better-paying jobs than women.

The earnings distributions starkly depict the heavily racialised inequality in the South African labour market. In addition to having the worst employment outcomes, black Africans also earn the lowest wages when they are employed. Whites, in contrast, earn substantially higher salaries than all the other population groups. To put things into perspective, the mean actual earnings between 2011 and 2015 among employed black Africans was R6 899 (actual payments) a month while for coloureds and Indians/Asians, the corresponding figures was R9 339 and R14 235 a month, respectively. Among whites, it was R24 646 a month, or more than three times as high as the figure for black Africans (Statistics South Africa, 2015).

Against the above backdrop, COVID 19 has been a further catalyst in increased job losses in the informal sector and lower hierarchical levels. One noticeable unintended consequence of job losses was the widening of the void between rich and poor. Some jobs were more at risk than others, and these were usually the lowly paid jobs.

So what are possible questions that the poor in all race groups ask? Possibly, do the rich and influential in our society take cognizance of the fact that many fellow citizens live in temporary informal, unsafe communities with little to no ablution facilities, running water, adequate space for social distancing, and unhealthy emotional spaces?

While the rich, including our politicians, use this time to focus on State Capture and the bleeding of South Africa’s tax coffers for unjustifiable self-enrichment, the poor languish in the false hope that someday, someone will recognise and respond to their plight.

A further notable fact that has been exposed is the robust debate among liquor businesses which enjoy enormous profits and contribute to the cycle of violence and poverty among the poor and vulnerable through alcohol sales. Their discussion focuses on their so-called rights to remain operational as usual, for any decision to reduce their trading hours will financially disadvantage them.

This scenario paints a stark, contrasting picture from those discourses at the dawn of democracy. The livelihoods and lifestyles of the poor and oppressed that gave impetus to our transformative constitution no longer exist. 

Yet, the South African government continues to hear the voices of the most powerful or the wealthiest in the country. The poor lack formal spaces to be heard; hence their plight will revolve.

Will South Africa ever heal from being an unequal society?

UKZN’s Professor Nirmala Gopal, who has worked in the Education and Criminology sectors for 35 years, has been politically conscious and active since the age 16 and is a strong human rights ambassador.