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HomeExecutive BriefThirty years after the end of apartheid, equality eludes South Africa

Thirty years after the end of apartheid, equality eludes South Africa

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Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress promised South Africans “a better life for all” when it swept to power in the country’s first democratic election in 1994, marking the end of white minority rule and apartheid.

After 30 years of ANC government, many South Africans are frustrated about persistent poverty and inequality, and the party risks losing its parliamentary majority for the first time in a May 29 election, according to opinion polls.

The World Bank reported in 2022 that South Africa was the most unequal country in the world, based on the Gini metric, a statistical distribution of welfare indicators commonly used to measure inequality.

The following data shows that while strides have been made in delivering education, housing, and welfare benefits to a wider share of society, South Africa has yet to overcome the legacy of apartheid and deliver a better life for all.

South Africa’s joblessness rate, among the highest in the world, is the number one concern for many voters, though the problem is far more acute for the black majority than for the white minority. The rates for other ethnic groups fall somewhere in between.

A series of government interventions have failed to narrow the gap, with the unemployment rate last year standing at 36.5% for black people and 7.7% for white people.

The unemployment gap between population groups persists.

Almost a third of the total labour force is unemployed in South Africa.

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South Africa’s GDP per capita increased steadily in the years following the advent of democracy, but that trend has reversed since 2011. By 2023, it was below average for emerging markets.

Economists say the decline in GDP per capita is rooted in a weakening economy rather than population growth. Power shortages and poor maintenance of critical transport infrastructure are among the factors deterring investment and hampering business.

South Africa’s GDP growth has averaged 0.8% per year since 2012, a rate the National Treasury has said is insufficient to reduce high levels of unemployment and poverty.

South Africa underperforms peers on GPD per capita.

South Africa’s per capita GDP, which was rising steadily between 2002 and 2011, has declined and fallen below that of the emerging market countries’ average in 2023.

One measure of the unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity in South African society is the breakdown by population group of ownership of companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

Black people make up more than 80% of South Africa’s population. However, average black ownership in JSE-listed firms—a measure that includes other previously segregated racial groups—was 30% in 2022, with the remaining 70% owned by white people and foreign nationals.

No JSE-listed company was fully black-owned in 2022.

Company ownership remains unequal.

The black majority is underrepresented in listed company ownership.

The question of land ownership is highly politically charged in South Africa due to the legacy of the colonial and apartheid eras, when black people were dispossessed of their lands and denied property rights.

Successive ANC governments have launched programmes aimed at transferring farmland from white to black owners, for example, by buying land and then redistributing it. The target, which has been moved back several times, is to transfer 30% of farmland owned by white farmers to black farmers by 2030.

Academics Wandile Sihlobo and Johann Kirsten, both experts on agriculture, have estimated that about 20% of freehold farmland owned by white farmers in 1994 has passed into black hands, either through government programmes or private purchases.

White commercial farmers now own about 61 million hectares, representing 78% of farmland that comes with private title deeds and 50% of all land in South Africa, according to their estimates.

Opinions vary widely on whether this represents significant progress or not, and land reform remains a rallying cry for certain political parties, including the ANC and the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, who want it to be accelerated.

White farmers still own most of South Africa’s freehold farmland.

The pace of land reform is a contentious issue in South African politics.


The number of South Africans on state benefits for old age, disability, or child support has increased significantly over the years, straining the country’s budget with more than a quarter of social development funding earmarked for social grants.

Over 27 million people, or 44% of the population, received state benefits in 2022. This compares to 2.4 million people, or 6% of the population, in 1998.

The ANC government introduced a new “social relief of distress” grant in 2021 to support those hardest hit by the COVID pandemic. It is currently debating whether to make it permanent.

Opponents of such subsidies say they act as a disincentive to people looking for work and divert resources from basic services like electricity, water, and schools.

An ever-growing number of welfare recipients

The number of South Africans drawing on state welfare increased significantly in 2021 and 2022 following the introduction of a “social relief of distress” grant for people affected by the pandemic.

South Africa significantly boosted basic and higher education enrolment after the democratic government abolished the apartheid-era Bantu education system, which provided inferior schooling for black children to hold them back.

However, IMF research in 2019 found that the poorest 75–80% of primary school learners depended on public schooling that was “dysfunctional,”  with limited resources and less well-qualified teachers.

The paper said 80% of the schools it described as dysfunctional were in predominantly black townships and in rural areas.

Access to higher education has widened.

The number of people per year graduating from higher education fell in 2022 after rising steadily since 2000.

South Africa’s publicly funded health sector, which serves over 80% of the population, is overburdened and run-down, while a privileged minority has access to better treatment through private insurance.

On May 15, two weeks before the election, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed into law a National Health Insurance (NHI) bill that aims to provide free healthcare to all South Africans.

Supporters say it will address healthcare inequality, but opponents say the NHI will be a drain on already stretched public finances and will limit patient choice, harm the quality of care, and drive talented doctors out of South Africa.

South Africa is one of the countries worst-hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with nearly 8 million people living with the virus, of whom about 5.7 million are receiving antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). The total population is 62 million.

Life expectancy was severely affected by the disease, falling from over 62 years in 1994 to about 54 years a decade later, before recovering thanks to the mass rollout of life-saving drugs from 2004 onwards.

The rollout was ordered by the Constitutional Court, ruling against the government of then president Thabo Mbeki, who had questioned the scientific consensus that AIDS is caused by the HIV virus and cast doubt over the safety of ARVs.

The drugs helped life expectancy recover. It remained on an upward trend until the COVID pandemic, when it dipped.

South Africa’s trouble with HIV

After a delayed start, the rollout of anti-retroviral drugs helped life expectancy.

Since 1994, the ANC government has broadened the provision of basic services, including housing, electricity, water, and sanitation, to a majority of South Africans.

Nearly 95% of households, for example, use electricity as the main source of energy for lighting, up from 58% of households in 1996.

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A man pushes a drum filled with water fetched from a communal water source in Lillydale, South Africa, on March 19, 2024. REUTERS/James Oatway

But the supply of power, water, and other basic services has deteriorated over the years as underinvestment in critical infrastructure has left it unable to cope with rising demand.

In recent years, frequent rolling power cuts of up to 10 hours a day have impacted everything from households to businesses and hospitals to traffic lights, becoming a byword for the ANC government’s failings in delivering basic services.

Access to quality housing with electricity has improved.

The proportion of South Africans living in formal dwellings with electricity and running water has improved since the end of apartheid. ~Reuters

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