20 years after first all-race elections, divide between rich and poor remains

While there has been a dramatic rise in the middle class, divide between rich and poor remains

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 April, 2014, 5:04am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 April, 2014, 5:22am


"How can you describe falling in love?"

That is how retired archbishop Desmond Tutu recalled voting in South Africa's first all-race elections on April 27, 1994, an exultant moment when the nation's majority blacks and other oppressed groups broke the shackles of white rule.

But as South Africa marked the 20th anniversary of multiracial democracy yesterday, the achievements and soaring expectations of what was dubbed a "rainbow nation" have been tempered by a different inequality - the yawning gulf between rich and poor.

This uneven narrative will shape elections on May 7 that are likely to result in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) - which led the fight against apartheid and has dominated politics since its demise - returning to power with a smaller majority, reflecting a growing discontent with the party.

One candidate is Julius Malema, the expelled head of the ANC's youth league and now leader of an upstart party that wants to redistribute wealth. Malema, who wears a red beret on the campaign trail, has criticised the government as elitist, saying real freedom will only come when the poor own a fair share of the land.

In an echo of the apartheid era, many cities feature crowded clusters of shacks and lush suburbs with homes behind high walls topped by electric fencing.

The income gap can be stark. In Johannesburg, beggars stand at many intersections in affluent areas. Last week, one black man stood before a passing stream of Mercedes, BMWs and other luxury cars holding a sign that read: "Help me please. I'm starving. Anything I can accept. God bless you."

On Wednesday, President Jacob Zuma spoke to members of the Afrikaner community, which dominated South Africa during apartheid, about the need "to heal the divisions of the past" but also referred to white domination of the economy, a result of efforts to ensure a smooth power transition 20 years ago.

Amid the persistent economic disparities, Zuma has been criticised for having more than US$20 million in state funds spent on upgrading his private rural home. The state watchdog agency concluded that he inappropriately benefited and should pay back some of the money.

Still, many black families have moved into the formerly all-white suburbs. And where just a few years ago trendy restaurants were notable for having an all-white clientele and all-black service staff, they are today much more integrated.

A Goldman Sachs report said that since 1994, gross domestic product has increased nearly threefold to US$400 billion, noted a "dramatic" rise in the middle class and an increase in the number of needy people receiving monthly cash grants from 2.4 million to 16.1 million. But it also cited threats to growth including a lack of skilled workers, persistent labour unrest and a decline of productivity in mining.

The government says 86 per cent of South African households now have access to electricity, compared to just over half in 1994, and that more than 95 per cent of households have access to a basic supply of clean water, compared to about 50 per cent 20 years ago.

The accomplishments started with the eradication of a system that denied basic rights to most of the population, with a suffocating combination of violence and racist laws that made South Africa an international pariah. Images of long, curling lines of South Africans waiting peacefully to vote in 1994 inspired the world.

The fact that South Africa could even celebrate 20 years of democracy was "a heck of an achievement", said Tutu.