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Racial Inequality in South Africa at the Heart of Workers Strikes

Racial Inequality in South Africa at the Heart of Workers Strikes

Farm workers protest over low wages in South Africa. The scene eventually turned violent when police unleashed rubber bullets. Fifty people were arrested.

On January 9, 2013, violent clashes between farm workers and police broke out in De Doorns town, South Africa, resulting in the use of rubber bullets and approximately 50 arrests. De Doorns is a major grape producing area nestled about two hours northeast of Cape Town. It is part of a region that is home to South Africa’s multibillion dollar wine industry and a popular tourist destination. The protesters, who are mainly black seasonal workers, are demanding that their wages be doubled. They currently only make about $8 per day on average.

This is just the latest incident in a country that struggled with similar violence in the mining industry, as thousands of workers went on strike at several mines to seek higher pay and better working conditions in South Africa’s largest industry. During demonstrations at the Marikana mine – owned by mining giant Lonmin – police opened fire on the protesters, killing 34 people. At an Amplat mine, the company fired 12,000 miners for protesting, only to bring them back with a minimal wage increase. These incidents have led to few reforms across the industry.

Both of these occurrences have received worldwide attention, exposing the poor pay and conditions for the poverty stricken workforce that populates South Africa. However, the real exposure in each circumstance is the vast racial inequalities that still plague the country, even more than two decades after Parliament voted to repeal apartheid. These inequalities are not simply confined to the labor market, but include land ownership and education as two of its major challenges.

Aside from the low pay and poor working conditions, black South Africans have to deal with a 29 percent unemployment rate. Nationwide, the rate is number four in the world at 25 percent and has not dropped below 22 percent since 2007. Therefore, the overall labor market for inhabitants, especially black South Africans, is in an abysmal state of affairs.

Prior to the apartheid, two land acts – one in 1913 and one in the 1930’s – were passed in which over 90 percent of all land was seized by white settlers, confining the indigenous population to the measly leftovers. At the end of apartheid and the rise of ANC political machine, land was supposed to be transferred back to black ownership in an attempt to even the playing field. However, since that time very little land has been redistributed to the black population. Some estimates put the figures of white land ownership at between 50 and 87 percent, while whites only make up about 10 percent of the population.

While massive strides have been made to help curb the pattern of racial inequality and empower the black middle class, much of the population – especially in poor rural areas – continue to lag behind and this hurts their long-term prospects for economic contribution.  A World Bank study released in 2012 revealed that gender and race at birth, as well as access to education, largely determined the success of a person’s life in the country. In addition, the report found that despite possessing the largest economy on the continent and maintaining a rapidly growing middle class, the income gap between rich and poor continued to grow larger. It also explained that rural black populations had little access to healthcare or education. Last year a scandal broke over textbooks failing to be delivered in Limpopo, the country’s northernmost province, even after they were paid for. A lawsuit against the country’s Basic Education Department revealed that 80 percent of all schools were failing.

In the end, these issues have fallen well short of the aspirations that were conveyed upon the rise to the presidency by Nelson Mandela in 1994. As the largest economy on the continent, a member of the G-20 and considered by many as the voice of sub-Saharan Africa, these issues are inexcusable. Reforms need to be made to improve working conditions and pay, promote stimulating education, even the land ownership playing field, and address other issues, such as the high rate of HIV/AIDS which is rampant across the country and the fourth highest in the world. If these basic foundations of positive development are ignored or repelled, the advancement of South Africa as a whole could be in jeopardy. Returning to the fundamentals of reversing the apartheid that were present when the movement first achieved success will be the only way to ensure that statewide  is achieved.




Daniel Donovan

Daniel is the Executive Director of a non-profit development organization that focuses on building infrastructure and training in rural Sub-Saharan Africa called the African Community Advancement Initiative ( . He has a Master's degree graduate in International Relations with an emphasis on conflict resolution and development in Sub-Saharan Africa. Coupled with his extensive financial background, Daniel also works as a consultant for Consultancy Africa Intelligence in Pretoria and the Centre for Global Governance and Public Policy in Abu Dhabi. In addition to his work at FPA, he is also a regular contributor to The Continent Observer and International Policy Digest. He currently resides in Denver, CO.