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This article is taken from the May 2004 Phatlalatsa newsletter


A decade of democracy : South Africa in review — Part Two

A decade of democracy : South Africa in review — Part Two imageDavid Everatt reviews the 10 years since the democratic general election of 1994. Part 2 of this 4 part series.

Foreign affairs

There has been little acknowledgement of how the ANC has dramatically re-shaped South Africa's international role, revitalising the Southern African Development Community (SADC), re-inventing

the OAU as the African Union (AU), and reincarnating the Tri-Continental Alliance as the G-5 and the Non-Aligned Movement, all of which South Africa has chaired.

This Pan-Africanism rests on the practicalities of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD). Bi-national commissions exist with Nigeria , Egypt and Algeria , the first two as the largest nations in Africa , and the latter two, after South Africa , as the most industrialised. Mbeki extended this policy of choosing strategic allies to the largest country in South America, Brazil, and the largest multi-party democracy in the world, India, thus bringing Brazil, Egypt, India, Nigeria and South Africa together as the G-5, to address the fight against the double standards in globalisation, as seen in the pressure to open up the markets of the poorest agrarian countries to those of the European Union (EU), the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) and Japan, while farm subsidies de facto block third world food exports to the north.

The official opposition is critical of the non-aligned, developing world focus of the ANC-led government, whose foreign policy priorities have established South Africa as a continental peace-making power, and the first country looked to in this role by the United Nations.


A glaring contradiction of post-apartheid South Africa is seen in the discourse of inclusion and exclusion. Constitutionally enshrined ideals of equality and inclusion are juxtaposed with affirmative action, massive unemployment and violence against women and children. While the Constitution provides an inclusive vision, with discrimination outlawed and equality triumphant; levels of exclusion have increased since 1994, such as from the economy and from mainstream civic life.

This is inextricably linked to race, a divisive issue in South African society. During the struggle era, the ANC and its allies emphasised non-racialism, had an agenda to deal with inequality, and recognised diversity. Race was subsumed in a debate about class and the nature of the struggle against apartheid.

Racial identities remain important in South Africa, but it is unclear how different sections of the population see themselves – whether racial identities are more important to people than their religion, sex, class and so on. Non-racialism and the ‘rainbow nation' have rarely been given substantive content, but have remained the rallying cries of politicians. While racial integration that was unthinkable a decade ago is now the norm, many romantic illusions of activists struggling for non-racialism in South Africa have dissipated

Under Mbeki, the ANC has emphasised empowerment ventures and enhanced delivery. Affirmative action and black economic empowerment are demanded by many blacks but decried by others (mainly white) who see their vested interests being threatened. This kind of debate is dangerous, since it elevates short-term mechanisms such as affirmative action to the status of principle, whereafter they become embedded and near-impossible to remove without giving the appearance of defeat. Affirmative action, black economic empowerment and other interventions of this nature are necessary but temporary mechanisms for aligning the status quo, and their ending should be the signal that ‘transformation' is over and ‘normality' has begun. This has not been the case, and affirmative action seems to have become a permanent fixture rather than a short-term corrective. At what point will ‘the new South Africa ' become simply South Africa ; and the artificiality of transition give way to the predictability of the normal?

Poverty and inequality [1]

Inclusion and exclusion are seen clearly through the prism of poverty and inequality. In the 1998 parliamentary debate on reconciliation and nation-building, then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki famously argued that South Africa comprised two ‘nations' divided by poverty:

‘One of these nations is white, relatively prosperous, regardless of gender or geographic dispersal. It has ready access to a developed economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure… The second and larger nation of South Africa is black and poor, with the worst affected being women in the rural areas, the black rural population in general and the disabled. This nation lives under conditions of a grossly underdeveloped economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure. It has virtually no possibility to exercise what in reality amounts to a theoretical right to equal opportunity . .' [2]

While some have dismissed the ‘two nations' thesis as ‘racial rhetoric' [3] , factually, Mbeki was, and remains, right – poverty is a defining characteristic of South Africa, and has clear racial, gender and spatial dimensions. With various definitions used to measure poverty, one common finding holds true: ‘…the majority of black South Africans exist below any acceptable minimum poverty line.' [4] While Mbeki's ‘two nations' speech was notably silent on inequality and loud on poverty, poverty and inequality are South African hallmarks. Not only is the country one of the world's most unequal, but inequalities in income distribution saw the Gini coefficient rising in the 1990s, [5] despite the ANC's avowed commitment to redistribution.

Poverty & inequality: the numbers

• One in ten Africans is malnourished, and one in four African children is stunted. Just under half the population (45% or 18 million people) lives on less than US$2 a day, [6] and it is generally believed that 45% to 55% of all South Africans live in conditions of poverty – 20 to 28 million people. [7]

• In October 1999, an estimated 26.3 million people were in the 15 to 65 age bracket, the cohort considered to be potentially economically active in any given population. Unemployment, applying the expanded definition, [8] was 36%, and was far higher for African females (52%) than any other group. Compared to the 1996 and 1999 October Household Surveys, unemployment increased from 34% to 36%.

• While the actual number of people employed during this time increased by 14% from 9.1 to 10 million, the number of unemployed people also grew by 26% from 4.7 million to 5.9 million. In 1999, 22% of households reported that members were going hungry and 38% of African households contained no employed people, up from 32% in 1995. Poverty has a spatial dimension, with 72% of South Africa 's poor living in rural areas. Poverty is gendered: the poverty rate among female-headed households (60%) is twice that of male-headed households. [9] As Mbeki noted, poverty has a stark racial dimension: 61% of Africans were poor in 1996 compared with just 1% of whites.

Children in poverty

Poverty attacks the most vulnerable, and ‘no matter what indicator we choose, child poverty is extensive although its extent and nature varies across the provinces.' Little has changed since the preceding decade where the 1998 Poverty and Inequality Report found that a third of children aged below five lived in the poorest households. Some 60% of South African children live in the poorest 40% of households measured by income; three-quarters of all children living in poverty can be found in rural areas; and 97% of them are African. It is of concern that most indicators suggest that child poverty is on the increase. [10]


Farm-workers comprise one of the largest categories of the rural population, with one-fifth living and/or working on farms. Some 2.1 million people or 15% of the workforce are employed as agricultural labourers or labour tenants, and they have 8 million dependants. Labour legislation was extended to cover farm-workers only in 1993. Land tenure rights are tenuous, and racism is rife, fuelled by the semi-feudal relations that prevail on farms.

Inequality and poverty are linked. In 1991, 9% of the richest income decile was African, rising to 22% in 1996, but the poorest remain overwhelmingly black. [11] Significantly, inequality has been ‘…changing from being race to class-based' [12] as a rich black elite has emerged and whites have become proportionately less wealthy. Thus, only a small proportion of black South Africans is benefiting significantly from the post-apartheid economic dispensation, and it seems apparent that reliance on market forces to achieve anything other than gradualist elite redistribution is misplaced.

The racial, gender and spatial dimensions of poverty are a direct result of the policies of successive colonial, segregationist and apartheid regimes. It is not a part of a past now behind us, since less than a decade ago, full educational and employment opportunities were denied to black South Africans who lived in areas zoned by race and marked by limited and poor quality infrastructure and, in rural areas, unproductive land. Those most affected by poverty are black, live in rural areas and are more likely to be women or children. Another key target group is farm-workers, who traditionally bore the brunt of segregationist policies and practices. These should not be controversial statements, since evidence for them lies not merely in statistical reports but is visible in all the cities, towns and rural areas of South Africa .

Violence and conflict

Violence and conflict are an integral part of the lived experience of poverty. [13] South Africa was and is an extremely violent society, with political violence peaking in the 1990s, and criminal violence consistently high. Prior to 1990, violence was concentrated in KwaZulu-Natal , where traditionalists (clustered around the Inkatha Freedom Party) clashed with modernising forces supportive of the ANC over provincial autonomy and local power and resources, and with an urban spin-off which claimed thousands of lives. While political violence has dropped dramatically and some forms of violent crime are being curbed, it is clear that violence has been displaced into the private sphere where gender-based violence runs rampant and the abuse of children and infants is on the increase.

A recent report on rural violence in KwaZulu-Natal showed links to struggles over land, [14] with a ‘floating' population of young males at the centre of the violence; forced off farms where their families may have lived and worked for generations, and failing to find either acceptance or employment in nearby urban centres, migrating between the urban and rural, and being drawn to crime. What is remarkable is how little is being done about rural violence, including attacks on white farmers and violence in rural communities more generally, despite the creative solutions developed by conflict resolution NGOs in the 1980s and 1990s.

Two points are worth mentioning in the South African context :

  • The first is that ordinary South Africans are very quick to resort to violence or the threat of violence to resolve differences. The implication is that might is right and that the ability to exercise violence is validated as a positive social value.
  • The second is that violence retards development, making it both more expensive and less effective, and so helps entrench the structural violence of social inequality. [15]

Current thinking goes beyond the preoccupation with simply the absence of conflict or violence. Peace is rather seen as a ‘network of relationships full of energy and differences… achieved only when the root causes of the differences or conflictual relationships are explored and resolved'. [16]

Violence is also associated with vigilante groups such as People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) in the Western Cape and Mapogo A Mathamaga, an increasingly formalised black-led group that uses ‘rough justice' on alleged offenders in black communities in Limpopo and North West provinces and is now spreading across the country.


Re-integrating ex-combatants into society is a complex undertaking, but is crucial in South Africa where they come from a wide range of backgrounds, including:

  • former members of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and the Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA);
  • former members of self-defence units and similar structures;
  • former soldiers of African origin who made up key battalions in the former South African Defence Force (SADF);
  • former conscripts of the SADF;
  • former combatants in violence-affected communities.

‘Demobilised ex-combatants who no longer hold positions in the formal security structures are conventionally considered a vulnerable population. This is because the termination of their combatant activities requires them to find alternative methods of income generation and support – a demand for which they are often ill-equipped. Furthermore, they find themselves in a hostile environment characterised by high levels of unemployment. This vulnerability, combined with their former combatant status, has led to characterisations of this population as a security threat.' [17]

Conflict may have changed somewhat, from an overtly political form to other manifestations, but remains part of South African life. Future conflict may emanate from unresolved trauma being expressed violently, by youth and adults who experienced the violent transition from apartheid to democracy and are still in conflictual environments, and includes both marginalised youth and other groups such as ex-combatants.

Growth and/or development?

The RDP stated:

…an election victory is only a first step. No political democracy can survive and flourish if the mass of our people remain in poverty, without land, without tangible prospects for a better life. Attacking poverty and deprivation must therefore be the first priority of a democratic government. [18 ]

In 1991, Nelson Mandela had publicly reaffirmed the commitment of the ANC to nationalisation, as reflected in the Freedom Charter; this shifted to favour a ‘mixed economy' that lay somewhere between a ‘commandist central planning system' and an ‘unfettered free market system'. [19] There was broad-based domestic support in the early 1990s for poverty eradication as set out in the RDP [20] which combined silences in key areas with rallying calls to action on poverty and human rights. Its ‘almost Biblical character' and astute politicking by senior ANC officials ensured ‘a unique national consensus on the need for prosperity, democracy, human development and the removal of poverty'. [21]

In the first flush of post-apartheid democracy, the weaknesses of the RDP were overlooked and the hopes of left-leaning ANC members were pinned on the centrally located (but politically weak) RDP Office, which promised to deliver in the three areas – ‘openness, civil liberties and land distribution' – significant to both growth and equality. [22] A range of infrastructure provision initiatives was initiated, and social welfare benefits formerly restricted by race were made universally available. School feeding schemes were introduced, alongside advances in access to health care and education, and by 1996, President Mandela could reasonably assert: ‘as a government, we have declared war on poverty.' [23]

However, 1996 was also the year of betrayal in the eyes of many on the left, as the ANC-led government abolished the RDP Office and adopted the Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy. GEAR has been criticised from within the tripartite alliance and civil society more broadly as ‘a home-grown version of the World Bank's notorious Structural Adjustment Programme'. [24] It barely mentioned poverty, and only then in the context of social security and water provision, and made it clear that economic growth took precedence over other considerations, a reversal of priorities from the short-lived days of the RDP. Redistribution appeared in GEAR's title but was absent from the substance of the strategy, as it had been from the RDP.

Changing GEAR

Poverty and inequality cut to the core of ideological differences within the tripartite alliance, with poverty inseparable from politics in South Africa , whether considering its origins and causes, current form or solutions.

On the economic front, ‘neo-liberalism' has been blamed for virtually all ills facing South Africa , while on the socio-political front, Mandela's ‘rainbow nation' discourse has been replaced by an emphasis on race.

GEAR assumed that economic growth would entail a classic ‘trickle-down' formulation, and committed government to a package of measures that fitted comfortably within the monetary and fiscal policies advocated by free enterprise economists nodding vigorously in the direction of a form of globalisation commonly referred to as ‘the Washington Consensus'. [25]

Growth in and of itself is no panacea, only helping the poor if they share in it. [26] GEAR failed to trigger significant growth, showing an average 2.7% a year between 1994 and 2000 [27] , reaching 3.1% by 2002. The 1.3 million new jobs it had forecast failed to materialise, while over a million formal sector jobs were lost.

Rate of unemployment by race & sex (%)
  Male Female Total
African 37 52 44
Coloured 19 28 24
Indian 18 24 20
White 6 7 7
Source: 1999 October Household Survey

The apparent failure of the GEAR strategy has fuelled the argument that ‘…a small black elite has … joined the upper income ranks, but black South Africans - especially those in rural areas – still disproportionately dominate the ranks of the poor and ultra-poor'.[28]

GEAR has been most costly in political terms, signaling the elevation of growth and fiscal stringency above the socio-economic priorities of the RDP, while disregarding broad-based redistribution. Although publication of GEAR caught both COSATU and the SACP unawares, both have steadily increased opposition to GEAR and the Mbeki presidency more broadly, which is characterised as centralist, overly controlling and conservative.

Human development indicators

The Human Development Index (HDI) developed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) measures a country's achievements in terms of life expectancy, educational attainment and adjusted real income, and the annual HDI rating allows changes over time to be assessed. The most recent Human Development Report ranked South Africa 107 of 173 countries, a ‘medium human development' category. Of concern is the fact that South Africa 's rating on the HDI has been on the decline for the last five years and the current rating is lower than that of 1990. One of the main reasons for this is the impact of the HIV and AIDS pandemic on life expectancy; the Actuarial Society of South Africa states that life expectancy at birth dropped from 61.5 years in 1995 to 56.4 years in 2002.


While critics have been sharp in their criticism, most have failed to offer any substantial alternative to the current economic policy or development framework. Those to the right of the ANC, the free market proponents, can do little more than call for greater market freedom. A former advisor to the apartheid presidency, Sampie Terreblanche, described South Africa as ‘a system of African elite democracy cum capitalist enclavity'.[29] His fear is that in future, interaction between rich and poor ‘will be at the level of crime, violence, and contagious diseases that will be “exported” daily'. The solution, he argues, is ‘a decisive paradigm shift from the liberal capitalist ideology of the British-American world towards the social democratic ideology of continental Europe ' – although we are not told how such a change in weltanschauung might occur. [30]

Mbeki gently put free marketeers in their place in early 2003, reminding them that three years of neo-liberal orthodoxy notwithstanding, ‘We do not agree and will not support the proposition … that we should rely solely and exclusively on the market to solve the problems facing our people. We are not market fundamentalists…' [31]

Those to the left feel betrayed but are unclear about what the ANC should do differently. Marais outlines the global and local constraints facing the ANC government, but his main criticism is government's failure to take risks and move beyond economic orthodoxy, while simultaneously describing the power of the South African private sector and its deep sensitivity to anything but free market economics. [32] Bond hopes the progressive forces that helped shape the RDP will ‘be drawn towards a much more productive campaign defending and amplifying the RDP of the Left'. [33] Alexander accepts that the ANC had little option but to embrace neo-liberal orthodoxy, but (with Bond) argues that the ANC's key failing is that it ‘is placing its faith in the international capitalist class rather than in the social movements of the common people'. [34] While both regard building social movements as a key task, it is not clear what is to be done until social movements regain the power they enjoyed in the struggle era, and there appears to be little likelihood of the ANC's left-wing members winning significant concessions in the interim. Alexander, like Bond, further believes that – however misguided – ANC leaders ‘believe they are “doing good” and … ultimately, acting for the good of “the people”', as if this generalisation substitutes for psychological analysis. [35]

Stung by hostile criticism from within the tripartite alliance and former allies in civil society, ANC documents – while acknowledging that there may be weak co-ordination of programmes within government [36] – refute any suggestion that the RDP is dead, or that GEAR has its shortcomings. Government insists that ‘[a]ttacking poverty and thus bridging the gap between South Africa 's “two nations” has been at the centre of all government's policies and programmes since 1994'. The ANC, however, has some grounds for feeling harshly treated: critics who hark back to the RDP refuse to accept the very substantial levels of delivery on basic needs achieved since 1994.

But while many associate Mbeki with a more strident approach to race than his predecessor, he is the same man who wrote the famous ‘I am an African' speech which powerfully re-stated the ANC ideal of non-racialism. Moreover, the 2003 State of the Nation speech also suggested that the racial basis of the ‘two nations' thesis is being de-emphasised and replaced with less divisive terminology:

‘With regard to the accomplishment of the task of ensuring a better life for all, we must make the observation that the government is perfectly conscious of the fact that there are many in our society who are unable to benefit directly from whatever our economy is able to offer. Obviously, this includes those on pension and the very young. But it also includes people who are unskilled and those with low levels of education in general. This reflects the structural fault in our economy and society as a result of which we have a dual economy and society. The one is modern and relatively well developed. The other is characterised by underdevelopment and an entrenched crisis of poverty. We have to respond to the needs of the fellow South Africans trapped in the latter society in a focussed and dedicated manner to extricate them from their condition. The expansion in social provision must reach this sector of our society, to relieve the poverty and suffering afflicting these masses of our people.' [37]

Part Three in the next newsletter will examine the emerging social movements, constitutional democracy and socio-economic rights, and assess delivery thus far.


1 See Everatt D. “The politics of poverty” in Everatt & Maphai (2003). The (real) State of the Nation op cit.

2 Mbeki T. (1998) Africa – The Time Has Come . (Tafelberg/Mafube, Cape Town ) p.72.

3 Seekings J. and Nattrass N. (2002). “Class, Distribution and Redistribution in Post-Apartheid South Africa” in Transformation Vol. 50, p.5.

4 Report of the Committee of Inquiry into a Comprehensive System of Social Security for South Africa (2002). Transforming the Present – Protecting the Future. (Department of Social Development, Pretoria ), p.275.

5 Committee of Inquiry (2002) Transforming the Present op cit., p.16.

6 Committee of Inquiry (2002) Transforming the Present op cit., p.276.

7 Committee of Inquiry (2002) Transforming the Present op cit., p.276.

8 The unemployed are defined as those people within the economically active population who (a) did not work during the seven days prior to the interview, and (b) want to work and are available to start work within a week of the interview.

9 ibid., p.277.

10 Source: Cassiem S., Perry H., Sadan M. and Streak J. (2000) Child Poverty and the Budget 2000 (Idasa, Cape Town )

11 Commission of Inquiry op cit., p.17, citing Whiteford and van Seventer.

12 McGrath, quoted in Adelzadeh A., Alvillar C. and Mather C. (1998) “Poverty elimination, employment creation and sustainable livelihoods in South Africa ” (National Institute for Economic Policy, Johannesburg ), p.10.

13 See for example the World Bank's ‘Voices of the Poor' project.

14 Steinberg J. (2002) Midlands

15 Hallowes D (2001) “Violent conflict in KwaZulu-Natal ” (mimeo, Critical Resources), p.29.

16 Assefa H (1993) Peace and Reconciliation as a Paradigm (Nairobi Peace Initiative, Kenya ), p.4.

17 Sasha Gear (2002) “Wishing us away: Challenges facing ex-combatants in the ‘new' South Africa ”

18 African National Congress. (1994) The Reconstruction and Development Programme, p.4. (Ravan Press, Johannesburg )

19 Ibid., p.78.

20 African National Congress (1994) The Reconstruction and Development Programme (Ravan Press, Johannesburg ). See Chapter 4: Building the Economy.

21 Mbeki (1998) Africa – The Time Has Come op cit., p.82.

22 Kanbur R. and Squire L. (1999) “The evolution of thinking about poverty: exploring the interactions”. Presented to the symposium on “Future of Development Economics in Perspective”, mimeo, p.11.

23 Nelson Mandela: Statement on International Day for the Eradication of Poverty p.1.

24 Mngxitama A. (2001) “ South Africa : Country Report Social Watch” (mimeo, National Land Committee, p.1.)

25 Davis D. (2003) “From the Freedom Charter to the Washington Consensus” in Everatt D and Maphai TV (eds) in Development Update “The (real) State of the Nation” Vol.4 No.3 (Interfund, Johannesburg)

26 Kanbur and Squire (1999) “The evolution of thinking” op cit., p.2.

27 Terreblanche S. (2002) A history of Inequality in South Africa , 1652-2002 ( University of Natal Press and KMM Review Publishing, Pietermaritzburg), p.427.

28 Mngxitama, op cit. p.1.

29 Terreblanche (2002) Inequality op cit., p.422.

30 Terreblanche (2002) Inequality op cit., p.439 (emphasis in original).

31 Thabo Mbeki: Response to the parliamentary debate on the State of the Nation address, National Assembly, 18 February 2003 .

32 Marais H. (2002) “The logic of expediency: Post-apartheid shifts in macroeconomic policy” in Jacobs S. and Calland R. (eds.) Thabo Mbeki's World: the Politics and Ideology of the South African President ( University of Natal Press , Scottsville), pp.83-104.

33 Bond P. (2000) Elite Transition: From apartheid to neoliberalism in South Africa (Pluto Press, London ), p.121.

34 Alexander (2002) An Ordinary Country op cit., p.152.

35 Alexander (2002) An Ordinary Country op cit., p.151.

36 ANC (2002) “Social transformation” op cit., para 14.

37 Thabo Mbeki: State of the Nation address at the opening of parliament, 14th February 2003 .


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