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The Problem of Economic Inequality in Modern South Africa

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Today South Africa is still not a free and fair democracy as defined in our Constitution. There are huge divisions in society due largely to the past apartheid regime. This disparity manifests as economic inequality including income, employment and educational inequality. It also manifests as social and geographical inequality and the lack of basic services to certain residential and rural areas. Numerous laws have been created to address this disparity, yet we are still viewed as one of the most unequal nations in the world. How can we even dream of that free and fair democracy defined in our constitution when these divisions created by our past have not been healed?

Economic inequality is a legacy of apartheid during which marginalized people were forced to live far from economic opportunities. According to the World Inequality Database, the top 10% of South African earners, mostly white, still earn almost 65% of all the income in the country, and the remaining 90%, mostly blacks, only get 35% of the total income of the country. This is a huge income inequality. Directly linked to this are unequal job opportunities with far more Black than White people being unemployed. In fact, statistics show that the unemployment among black South Africans stands at 39% compared to just 8,3% among white citizens. Education is a huge factor in this economic inequality. A report by Statistics South Africa revealed that 15% of Black South Africans dropped out of school with only a primary school education while the country still produces more white university graduates than any other group. Lack of finances, lack of transport, lack of skills, racism during recruitment or education issues such as lack of good schools in ‘black’ areas are some of the reasons for this disparity which has its roots in the country’s racist history. We cannot be called a true democracy when economic inequality is so blatant.

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Geography is also a huge part of how divided our society is. Black people were forced to live in rural homelands and areas on the outskirts of cities that lacked basic services and infrastructure. Today most of these areas are still regarded as poor neighborhoods and still have a majority black population. Despite promises made during the transition period from an apartheid regime, by 2015 almost 66% of the total population still lived in areas that lacked access to improved sanitation. Black women in rural areas still spend one-third of their time fetching water from streams and wells because they are still without running water. Even now, 24% of schools in South Africa have no running water and 20% have no functioning sanitation. The health impact of inadequate sanitation can be serious with large numbers of cases of diarrhea in children under five and numerous outbreaks of cholera. Furthermore, people from rural areas do not have proper access to health care due to a shortage of medical resources and health care workers. Continued inequality and rural health neglect have been cited as the main reason for this. Once again, these divisions from the past are still in existence 26 years after apartheid ended.

There is the argument that legislation such as the Skills Development Act 97 of 1998 and the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment Act are in place to address the racialized inequality in South Africa. These acts ensure that black people receive preferential treatment in the job market and attempts to place black people in management positions and as shareholders in businesses. However, the BBBEE Commission has revealed that between 2015 and 2018, the number of black business owners had in fact decreased and the BEE policy had failed dismally. Some of the reasons are due to a failure to regulate the policy. The economy thus continues to be unequal due to a lack of inclusivity and inequality.

The economic divide between the rich and the poor, and the unequal distribution of facilities and inadequate access to basic services by large segments of the population, clearly demonstrates that the divisions of the past have not been properly healed despite the ruling party’s mandate to redress these imbalances. It is clear that decisive action is needed to heal the divisions inherited from the past. Then and then only will we progress to that free and fair democracy outlined in our Constitution.

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The Problem of Economic Inequality in Modern South Africa. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from
“The Problem of Economic Inequality in Modern South Africa.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022,
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