Increasing rates of unemployment; aggravated crime; and the dreadful loadshedding, are merely some of the difficult circumstances that currently burden us as a country. Lately, there’s a popular statement that has been circulating on social media that goes: “South Africa’s economy was better under apartheid. FACTS!!!” This goes to show the exasperation that’s brewing within the masses, with the lack of a sense of urgency and accountability from elected leaders elected a prime concern. At this current juncture, we look like a state full of problems with no solutions in sight.
It is however absurd to use the apartheid economy as a benchmark for progress since democracy, because apartheid sought to prioritize the minority and its legacy is still with us. Here we are referring to an atrocious system that was diligently conceptualised and perfected over many years. The expectation to have it completely reversed in less than three decades is rather too ambitious. The transition into a democracy was bound to be one of trial and error.
Apartheid mainly thrived on the subjugation of the majority. It is that dominion that has resulted in the means of production, like the land of the country, still being largely in possession of the former oppressors. This does not create circumstances conducive enough for the economy to thrive as was expected, with the major gains still remaining under the control of those who have always benefited from the country’s economy – a bitter irony. Apartheid laws like the Group Areas Act and the Bantu Education Act were further evidence of the previous regime’s efforts to marginalise black people from the economy. They were subjected to the congested townships with dilapidated structures, where they were offered an inferior education system which would only result in them being skilled for the menial jobs.
The end of apartheid ushered in the lifting of sanctions against South Africa that were imposed by other countries as a means to fight against the system. This resulted in opening up the borders for the promotion of tourism, imports and exports, and foreign direct investment. There has been an increase in economic growth and development post-1994, not without fluctuations obviously but the positive greatly outweighs the negative in comparison to the prior state of affairs. The means to stabilise the distribution of wealth amongst all citizens of the country has materialised and we cannot overlook how much effort has been put in by the new government to combat discrimination: Policies like the Reconstruction and Development Programme to provide free housing for the impoverished, social relief assistance through the South African Social Security Agency by means of grants to assist in alleviating poverty for millions of South Africans, reducing discrimination in business through the Black Economic Empowerment and Employment Equity Acts, etc. The democratic government further offers free basic education and through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme has paid for the tertiary education of many students of colour who would not have been afforded the opportunity under the previous government. This has resulted in an increased number of black graduates, equipped with skills for better job opportunities. We have also experienced an increment in the number of people who receive electricity and quality water.
The incumbent government also encourages job creation and inclusive growth through the support and funding of Small, Medium and Micro Enterprises. Another example is a sector like tourism receiving a major boost through South Africa hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup, granting many previously disadvantaged groups access and opportunity to earn where they wouldn’t have. Furthermore, the MEC Panyaza Lesufi through the Gauteng Department of Education has been the driving force behind the opening of schools of specialisation throughout the province’s townships. This in response to the lack of skills in key economic sectors like the digital, with focus areas being entrepreneurship, maths, science, ICT, engineering, etc. The most recently launched in June was the Tembisa Commerce and Entrepreneurship SOS, whose core interest is tourism: one of our growing industries in the country and that is showing the steps being taken in the war against inequality.
I, like many are quite distressed by our current state of affairs, but cannot for the life of me justify how apartheid was in any way better a system than the current one. And I also share the sentiments of many that our current leaders cannot be absolved for their involvement in collapsing what has been built, and for not coming up with more ideas and solutions that should get us out of this pit. But I stand on this: a young black woman growing up in a shack in Soweto previously would not dream of graduating with two masters degrees, fully funded; get a prestigious job at a big corporation; or even own a house in the affluent suburb of Sandton in Johannesburg – the economic hub of Africa. The same woman would not envision herself on the path of formal entrepreneurship or even being on any board of directors of a JSE-listed company, with the influence that affords. Yes, many more black women need to experience these kinds of successes, but all would not have under apartheid.