The “Born Frees”

Meanwhile, South Africa has the greatest gap between the rich and poor of any country in the world. 77 Unfortunately, the contrast between the First and Third World in South Africa is particularly marked, and that gap between rich and poor has proved especially difficult to close. Up until a few years ago, teachers at the University of South Africa were still talking about some of the students’ assignments coming in with candle wax on them.78 So on the one hand, some people live a very comfortable lifestyle while, on the other, a significant number of South Africans do without even the most basic amenities.

Today the black middle class represents about 10 percent of the total population of South Africa; its members are often referred to as the “black diamonds” of the country.79 They are the first generation of black middle class that is providing the foundation for future generations.80 Only an estimated 2.6 million of South Africa’s 39 million blacks, who make up about 80 percent of the total population, earn at least 6,000 rand a month. It may not sound like much, but it is more than half of what other black South Africans make.81 The way of life for these black middle-class South Africans is worlds apart from the majority of their countrymen and women.

Of great concern is that inequality continues to grow despite government interventions to lessen it. In 1993, the poorest 10 percent of the population held 0.6 percent of total income, while the richest 10 percent accounted for 72.7 percent of it. In 2007, the numbers were 0.6 percent and 72.5 percent, showing a slight improvement, with a Gini coefficient of 66. Today that coefficient stands at 63.4, despite all the government initiatives and programs to close the gap between rich and poor in the nation. The disparity is most worrisome when looking at rural areas, where the inequities are at their most extreme. 82

Of a total national population of 54 million, about half are children, teenagers, and young adults who were born after 1990—the year in

Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Although 85 percent are Africans, they are often referred to as the “born frees” and seen as the “post-racial generation” in that they look beyond racial boundaries.83 While a third of the children live in a household where no one is employed, “born frees” increasingly are children born into middle-class homes who are growing up in a richer environment than their parents. However, unemployment rates are higher among younger people, women, and blacks. Among black male “born frees” between the ages of 15 to 24, unemployment is now running at 53 percent and for females that percentage is even greater at 61 percent—which compares to an unemployment rate of just 17 percent for white youth. Not surprisingly, when surveyed, 61 percent of “born frees” cite unemployment as the country’s most important issue.84

This generation is also facing other challenges:

  • • Approximately 3 million of the country’s 18 million children are orphans;
  • • Just 40 percent of the boys and 49 percent of girls can expect to live to be 65 years old;
  • • Antiretroviral drugs are available for only 25 percent of the one million people born with HIV/AIDS;
  • • Close to a third of the country’s prison population is composed of young people between the ages of 14 and 25; and
  • • Only 30 percent of born frees support the ANC, while 49 percent support the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and 14 percent the Democratic Alliance (DA).85

In June 2009, President Zuma stated South Africa must close the gap between rich and poor and address the issue of poverty. He went on to say that ignoring those issues would only lead to serious problems and consequences: “If that happens you are certainly sitting on a situation that will explode one day.”86 Part of the problem for South Africa is the inability of the economy to create jobs with incomes that allow the poor to accumulate wealth. Most of the new jobs have been added in the informal economy and do not even provide enough income to alleviate poverty. 87

To date, the country has contained social pressures by throwing a wide and deep safety net over the problem. In 1994, the government spent 10 billion rand on social grants for 2.6 million South Africans. By 2003 the government was spending 38.4 billion rand for 6.8 million people.88

Today, a quarter of all South Africans are receiving welfare grants.89 As important as social grants are as a way of ensuring that people have bread on their table, that approach does not address the root problem but instead only increases the number of people on welfare.90 Social grants do not transform lives nor deal with the basic issue created under the apartheid system: a culture that thought less of certain people and took away their dignity.91

And, in fact, policy makers and other experts are increasingly recognizing that social grants will not bring about the fundamental change necessary to move people out ofpoverty and address the enormous economic disparity in the country. According to the University of Cape Town’s Crain Soudien:

It’s that disparity that I think the leadership in this country misunderstands every single day. It doesn’t realize how the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder is not something that you can simply in a politely way appease. You can’t just say to people, here’s a social grant. With this new GEAR policy, if you simply feed this community with those kind of handouts, you’re not dealing with the social fears and concerns that this community has inherited from apartheid, which we need to actively turn around, in a whole range of



What apartheid basically did was to alienate a large portion of the population, giving them little sense of investment in the society. That is reflected in a township culture where many people take whatever they can from the local government and feel no obligation to move toward independence; their goal is simply to survive.93 The challenge in South Africa, as in other parts of the world, is to fully empower people to take charge of their lives and make meaningful contributions—not just rely on the government.94

The macroeconomic growth and development strategies of South Africa are closely linked to improvement of the higher education system and to gender equity, as the government considers both to be instrumental to the county’s economic and social progress. The government looks to higher education to produce skilled workers who can bring the country into the globalized, knowledge-based economy of the twenty-first century. And it looks to women, who represent half the country’s population, to participate in that economy. Chapters 7 to 9 will explore the implications of the government’s macroeconomic policies on both the higher education system and the women of South Africa.

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