Image: Markus Spiske (Unsplash)

South Africa (SA) is a country that is renowned for great things, however, it is also conversely known for a few not-so-great things, of which inequality is ostensibly one. Inequality in SA has its roots in colonialism and Apartheid, where the chasm – particularly between black and white people – was deliberately created through state policy. Such inequality has in some ways continued unabated in post-Apartheid SA. In fact, according to the 2018 World Inequality Report released by the World Inequality Database, SA is one of the most unequal countries in the world. Such a statistic was further corroborated in 2019 by StatsSA in its own report – titled Inequality Trends in South Africa: A Multidimensional Diagnostic of Inequality – that showed that one of the causes of SA’s inequality was the stark wage gap among its race groups, particularly between white and black South Africans.

To be sure, interracial inequality in SA is something that is well-known not only nationally, but internationally as well, with a large number of empirical literature on the topic in existence. This is probably because interracial inequality has had a long-existing presence in the country. In this sense, the spotlight on SA’s interracial inequality has long been focused on. What perhaps has received less focus, is intraracial inequality, or inequality within a single race. This is particularly concerning, considering that intraracial inequality equally contributes as much as, if not more, towards SA’s overall interracial inequality. In addition, intraracial inequality, particularly among black South Africans, has been increasing. This is evidenced by the fact that between 2006 and 2015 inequality amongst the black community rose from 0.54 to 0.57 on the Gini coefficient. A Gini coefficient of 0.00 represents absolute equality and 1.00 represents absolute inequality this highlights that inequality amongst black people has magnified. 

What is gravely alarming is that somehow this increase of intraracial inequality in SA is the higher amongst black South Africans than any other group despite that same demographic being the most disadvantaged compared to its counterparts. What has caused the growing chasm amongst black South Africans? The possible answer to such a question is twofold. Firstly, income inequality is a major cause of inequality. That is to say that inequality in income and earnings is directly proportional to inequality. Indeed, this is true when analysing black intraracial inequality in SA. The top 10% of black South African earners accumulated 7 times as much income as the bottom 40% combined. Consequently, by out-earning the bottom 40%, the top 10% of black South Africans have gotten richer while the bottom 40% have gotten poorer, giving rise to a marked and noticeable black elite. 

Secondly, working in tandem with income inequality is government policy as well as government corruption. While StatsSA, in its report, correctly attributes the cause and continuation of SA’s interracial inequality to apartheid government policy, it does err by accrediting intraracial inequality in SA to the same Apartheid policy. In this instance, StatsSA errs because it is not plausible that the same Apartheid policy that is keeping the bulk of black people in the country poor, unemployed and without income is also concurrently producing a growing black elite who are the exact opposite. A more plausible reason for the growth of this black elite class is the post-Apartheid government policy that is geared towards eradicating Apartheid-engineered inequality which has, ironically, proliferated intraracial inequality from 48% in 1993 to 62% in 2008 particularly black intraracial inequality. What surely has not helped is the manipulation of government policy by those politically connected who seek only to line their pockets. Indeed, as Khusela Diko and Smuts Ngonyama – who ‘didn’t struggle to be poor’ – have shown, the politically connected have corrupted government policy for personal gain. 

The essential point of the discussion above was to highlight how income inequality and government policy have played a great part in not only widening the intraracial gap among black South Africans, but perhaps even causing the gap. If this is accepted to be true, then two things can be concluded from that. Firstly, if the gap continues to widen it may suggest that understanding inequality in SA may require a more intersectional approach as the racial approach alone cannot provide the necessary explanations. The intraracial gap highlights that class is an increasingly important way of understanding inequality in the country because it is the basis of class that separates the black elite and working-class black South Africans and not race. Furthermore, class explains access, or the lack thereof, to economic and social opportunities such as ownership, income, and employment. This is not to say that race should no longer be used as a lens when trying to understand inequality in SA, but that a more an intersectional and multidimensional lens that includes race, class, gender etc. is better suited.  

Secondly, if income inequality and government policy are to be accepted as playing a pivotal role in causing a black intraracial gap, then it suggests that there has been a failure on the part of the African National Congress (ANC)-led government to eradicate the perpetuity of black poverty. Such a failure can only be blamed on the fact that the politically connected have, and are, benefitting from said black poverty. Certainly, as Tshepo Madlingozi stated in his article, the black ruling class ‘have an interest in maintaining a world of apartness’. Instead of dislodging the Apartheid-engineered economic dualism between white and black people, or what Thabo Mbeki described as ‘two nations, one black and the other white’, the ANC-led government has further deepened inequality and apartness in the country by creating its own ‘two nations’ consisting of a black elite on the one hand and the poverty-stricken black working-class on the other. The implication of this is that the realisation of black liberation, and economic liberation as a result, is being impeded upon because the existence of any elite, including a black elite, blocks the realisation of such liberation.

Tokologo Ramodibe is a graduate, who is completing his Masters in International Relations at the University of Witwatersrand. His interests include diplomacy, gender studies and human rights. He hopes to one day pursue a career in the foreign diplomatic service.


  1. this article is very insightful, it highlights the importance and a need for a shift in the discourse of inequality post-apartheid because clearly there are new factors and trends regarding inequality.


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