Poverty in the land of affluence

Heartbeat traffic permanently marks South Africa’s expansive freeways, with the country’s new urban rich driving latest-model Mercedes and BMW sedans into affluent suburbs and sending their children to formerly segregated first rate schools.

But under this impressive carpet of frenzied prosperity lies deep socio-economic inequalities. South Africa’s nouveau riche blacks have moved into affluent suburbs in both Johannesburg and Durban, and they have at best defied the trite norms of the fading apartheid system and are living up to the dream of the new South Africa, fast becoming the chosen investment destination for the world’s rich and famous entrepreneurs.

The new business elite’s children now share the same desks with their white and Indian counterparts in formerly segregated schools and for them, life has moved on but the majority of the country’s population continues to live in abject poverty in a country ranked as the wealthiest in Africa.

From the heart of Johannesburg down to the coast in Durban, the impression of wealth changing hands symbolised by the new business executives in posh cars is interrupted by shanty towns and shacks punctuating the roadside, and a whole chapter is missing from the continent’s great success story.

Slums of sordid and grinding poverty rub against state-of-the-art mansions in Johannesburg’s sprawling Soweto suburb to symbolise the sharp contrasts that cut across South Africa’s socio-economic profile, and high levels of violent crime continue to remind one of the deep rifts that separate the city’s rich from the poor.

For 12-year-old Khanyi Dlomo of Soweto, the status of Johannesburg as an internationally renowned investment centre has not contributed much to her life.

Khanyi’s father, Steven Dlomo, who has three daughters and is unemployed, cannot afford to send them to school, and as such, life is no picnic for his daughters and most children of their age.

“We have no money, the cost of living is quite high here in the city,” says, elderly Steven Dlomo in hardly intelligible English as he adjusts his tattered sofa in his makeshift plastic and pole house.

He goes on to narrate how his wife died of a serious illness in 1999 and left him with their three children, none of whom he has been able to send to school. Each of Dlomo’s three children requires R240 school fees to attend the nearby girl’s primary school.

Although the South African government has ruled that no child should be kept out of school due to lack of fees, Dlomo says his daughters have repeatedly been turned away as schools seldom follow this regulation.

“At the time of the (anti-apartheid) riots in 1976, many of us had no school to go to, and we spent most of our time on the streets, now our children are being turned away from school because we cannot afford to pay their fees.”

He talks of how he grew up in Soweto, without any education, and participated in the anti-apartheid riots as he downs another pint of Black Label, popularly known as “Soweto Pepsi”.

Half of South Africa’s population is made up of children under the age of 15, the majority of whom live in poor rural, peri-urban communities, high density townships and informal settlements in cities. Here, the lingering legacy of apartheid, violence, poverty, HIV and Aids and unemployment have evidently had a profound impact on families and left many children out of school.
<BR> At best, they live from hand to mouth, and tourists visiting Soweto are a relief to many. Soweto, itself a tourist attraction receiving more than 250 000 international tourists annually, is home to the majority of Johannesburg’s residents, and is bigger than Harare in size, with a population in excess of 4 000 000 people.

It gives a detailed cross section of South Africa’s social life, with its poor living in extreme poverty in slums that mark its perimeters while the rich live in affluent mansions in its suburbs.

Johannesburg, Africa’s wealthiest city, is the haven of the continent’s top entrepreneurs, with a first world appeal that easily sweeps the poor side of South Africa under an impressive carpet of heartbeat traffic, posh cars, wealthy suburbs and highly paid executives.

Despite the first world appeal that South Africa’s cities exude to international tourists and visitors alike, most of the country’s 44 million people either live in extreme poverty, with high crime levels and a high cost of living, or at the brink of becoming poor. One such area that gives a vivid image of glaring levels of poverty is Khayelitsha, a slum situated in Cape Town.

Khayelitsha is a low socio-economic area approximately 20 kilometres outside Cape Town, where people live in shacks and brick structures or a combination of both. At least 55 percent of people in Khayelitsha, said to be home to around half a million residents, live below the poverty datum line.

Half of all adults are unemployed while one in three people have no access to on-site water (in their homes). The living conditions are so deplorable that there are an average of 105 people per toilet in Khayelitsha’s Sites B and C.

Where toilets have been provided, there is one toilet for at least seven households. The storm water system, where all run-off rain and household water is channelled, has become highly contaminated by overflowing sewers, buckets of faeces being emptied in the street and people being left with no option but to use the veld as toilets.

Storm water ends up in rivers and streams. Although South Africa is a middle-income economy with a stock exchange that ranks among the 10 largest in the world, at least 23,8 million South Africans live in poverty, with 11,8 million (almost equivalent to Zimbabwe’s population) of them living in abject poverty.

Its celebrated economic growth has not been strong enough to lower its high unemployment rate, and economic problems from the apartheid era continue to hold it down, with high levels of poverty and lack of economic empowerment among the disadvantaged groups.

At least 61 percent of Africans and 38 percent of mixed-race “coloureds” in South Africa are poor, compared to only five percent of Indians and one percent of whites, and the disparities in the distribution of wealth are felt right across the board.

More than 20 million people in South Africa are living below the poverty datum line, and at least 25 per cent of the country’s population is unemployed. Debate has been raging in South Africa on ways to adjust inequalities in the distribution of wealth and eradicate poverty, and initiatives like the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and the Basic Income Grant (BIG), which would allow all citizens to receive R100 (Z$1,6m) every month regardless of age or income level have been mooted as possible remedies.

BEE is already operational, with many South Africans showing interest and some benefiting from it, but many still have been left behind, as it has benefited those who were already on the path to prosperity.

Many young executives are being used as proxies by South Africa’s traditional business elite. South Africa’s tourism sector has been fastest growing sector of its economy, with the country registering a record 7,4 million arrivals for 2005, and BEE has come up with a Tourism Charter to allow under-privileged blacks to benefit.

However, more than 90 000 tourists were involved in incidences of violent crime in 2005, and the country’s tourism authorities have identified violent crime as a constant threat to growth in tourism.

South Africa’s blacks constitute 67 per cent of the population in the country’s cities, and they continue to be the biggest victims of violent crime, with 85,7 percent of victims of rape, murder and assault without a weapon, and 74,5 percent of serious assault victims being black.

However, researchers from the Safety and Governance Programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Johannesburg have observed that poverty threatens South Africa’s new democracy more than crime does.

“It is the interaction between these problems that is potentially most debilitating: crime heightens people’s vulnerability to becoming poor and once victimised, limits their opportunities of escaping the cycle of poverty,” said Mark Shaw, a researcher at the ISS.

July 2006
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