The value of South Africa for understanding durable inequalities

Image: Joseph VM on Pixabay.

If there was a world cup of inequality, South Africa would be the leading contender. The types and the degrees of disparities suffered by the majority of the population of the country are neither right nor inevitable.

SALDRU, along with other researchers across the country, have undertaken important work over the last decades to understand the different inequities taking place in the country and their consequences, and to highlight how the markers of race, class and gender continue to condition the rights and opportunities for the majority of the population of the country.

Stark differences between males and females, urban and rural residents, lower income and higher income people, townships and suburbs, and between different groups (e.g. black and white South Africans) continue to be expressed; inequality is thus a key lens through which to view our collective progress as a society over the last 25 years and the aspirations of post-apartheid South Africa.

The lessons and experiences from South Africa have a lot to contribute to the conceptualisation and implementation of policies to reduce inequality worldwide, as well as to the theories that can help us understand how inequalities come about.

South Africa observes prevalent inequality, but has also observed different interventions aimed at reducing inequalities. In fact, South Africa has been home to a series of initiatives prior to their later adoption across the world.

To try to surface these lessons and contributions, we have been focusing our work in recent months to reflect along three lines of inquiry. First, we have reviewed how different policy proposals have succeeded or failed to reduce market and non-market inequalities in the country. Secondly, we have reviewed Piketty’s most recent book: Capital and Ideology, to reflect on how it might enable us to better understand and describe the forces that create resilient and self-reproducing inequalities as in the case of South Africa. Thirdly, we have reflected on how the contributions from other fields of research (e.g. sociology) can shed light on understanding the different mechanisms that reproduce inequities.

A team of Saldrupians also affiliated with the African Centre of Excellence for Inequality Research (ACEIR) (Murray Leibbrandt, Vimal Ranchhod and Fabio Andrés Díaz Pabón), together with Mike Savage from the International Inequalities Institute from the London School of Economics (LSE), undertook the task of trying to map the different initiatives implemented in South Africa since 1994, and their impact on reducing inequalities. We used Atkinson’s “Thinking outside of the box”  framework to reflect on the general impact of a diverse battery of policies, relating to the labour market, taxation, cash transfers, education, public employment, arbiter courts, public housing, empowerment (BEE and BB-BEE) and land restitution.

Through this work we identify South Africa’s success in implementing a series of innovative policy interventions and interesting institutional developments, but note that these have failed to reduce aggregate income inequality.

This has highlighted valuable lessons about the importance of contextual knowledge and institutional capacity for greater policy efficacy.

The same team extended this work by engaging with insights from Piketty’s recent book Capital and Ideology, and relating them to the South African case.  Piketty’s book advances our understanding of extractive histories and of how wealth inequalities and complex social and political institutions create the discursive justifications for inequities in different contexts across the world, although the treatment of African contexts is limited. We argue that the case of South Africa deserves more attention as an illustrative case that can help us to better reflect on how policy proposals can be implemented in contexts that both create new layers and simultaneously recreates old layers of inequality in developing countries. Not only does the case of South Africa present a case study that is closer to others across the African continent, but it also proves useful for reflection on some of the challenges faced by Piketty’s more recent proposals.

In fact, we found that some of the proposals put forward by Piketty to overcome inequality have been already implemented in South Africa, without reducing inequality.

This provides the basis with which to consider both the effectiveness of policy proposals aimed at reducing inequality and the challenges in the implementation of such policies.

The insights from these two work processes have driven us to focus on the forces that block interventions and continue to segregate large segments of the population of the country. Murray Leibbrandt and Fabio Andrés Díaz Pabón have begun exploring how the barriers to social mobility – in some cases endogenous to society – operate as traps, moats and obstacles that affect specific groups in society. The contribution of other fields (anthropology, sociology and development studies) is proving valuable in helping us to understand more clearly the different specific traps and obstacles faced by different groups. We have found that the analysis of the intersections of dispossessions and categorical inequalities allows us to better describe how multi-dimensional obstacles manifest differently in space. We seek to account for how markers such as race, class or gender, influence the opportunities for different groups to overcome inequality, in order to describe in detail the mechanisms that continue to allocate opportunities and rewards to specific groups in the country.

While our analysis points to the fact that policies have had a limited effect in reducing inequality in South Africa, we cannot dismiss the value of the policies that have been implemented.

While policies like minimum wages in the labour market have not had the expected positive effects on income inequality that they had in Latin America, we know that the policies implemented have worked as “shock absorbers” to the forces creating inequality in the country. This reflection brings us to emphasise that we need to continue aiming to find ways to better describe the forces creating precariousness and difference. While the exceptionally high inequalities of the country provide a challenge unparalleled in the world, a better understanding of such forces have the potential to inform policies that can help in overcoming these challenges, along with the impact of the current pandemic and the surging forces of climate change.