Foreign Policy Blogs

Green Point, Melville, and the Gini Coefficient

Credit: Department of the Premier, Provincial Government Western Cape

Credit: Department of the Premier, Provincial Government Western Cape

I am wrapping up this latest southern Africa trip over the next couple of days. Almost a week in Green Point, Cape Town, followed by a final few days in Melville, Johannesburg, allows me to decompress, see friends, buy books, write and reflect on the cultures of privilege and privation in South Africa today.

I’ll be the first person to admit that I have a shallow understanding of the Gini coefficient, which effectively lays out the extremes of inequality in any given society. But I know that South Africa’s is one of the worst in the world, which is to say that the extremes of poverty and affluence that reside nearly side-by-side here are stark and entrenched. And given that every society has extremely rich and extremely poor people, this must mean that the sheer volumes, the statistically significant numbers of people, indicate that this is not merely a matter of a few outliers shaping the statistics.

This divide sometimes makes me feel a bit guilty. After all, when I am in Cape Town I stay in Green Point or Sea Point or Gardens or Camps Bay. When I am in Joburg I tend to gravitate to Melville, but I also have stayed in Parkhurst and Sandton. In other words, I am not exactly choosing to spend time in Cape Flats or Alexandra. I engage in pretty bourgeois, privileged activities like spending afternoons writing in cafes, shopping in boutiques and browsing bookstores. In the evenings I eat in restaurants and go out to upscale bars. I, in short, am probably as much a part of the problem as I am the solution. I may write and teach about these issues, but at night I sleep on high thread count sheets.

And of course these class divisions still uncomfortably  cleave along racial lines. Even acknowledging a substantial infusion of black affluence and the steady emergence of a black middle class, these places that I have named share in common that whites are over-represented  among the clientele and are hardly at all represented among the car guards and roadside peddlers and innovators of the informal economy, never mind among the beggars. And they (we?) are underrepresented among the service staff.

Now, this service staff represents a real and valuable part of the economy. The average person, black or white, does not have the access or influence to become a tenderpreneur, part of the new political class that maximizes their political leverage to gain economic benefit. These jobs waiting tables and serving drinks and presiding over shops and delivering wine and produce a real and in any economy they are important. Still, one would also hope that they would begin to be distributed along more diverse lines.

And I don’t have any easy solutions. I don’t think anyone does either. Evangelists for the free market certainly do not have the evidence in their favor that a rising tide is lifting enough boats. And critics of the “neo-liberal” economy are no more convincing in their appeals to socialism as the panacea the region demands. The typical South African is unlikely ever to live in a Sea Point or a Melville. But it probably should not be too much to hope that aspects of this world won’t be permanently out of reach for tens of millions of the country’s citizens. The Gini coefficient tells us a good deal about what the problem is. Sadly it tells us virtually nothing about how to address the problem it identifies.



Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam is a Professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is also Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University. Derek writes about race and politics in the United States and Africa, sports, and terrorism. He is currently working on books on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and on the 1981 South African Springbok rugby team's tour to the US. He is the author of three books, dozens of scholarly articles and reviews, and has published widely on current affairs in African, American, and European publications. He has lived, worked, and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He writes about politics, sports, travel, pop culture, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Areas of Focus:
Africa; Zimbabwe; South Africa; Apartheid