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Inequality Fueling Violence in South Africa


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"We foresee there will now be an accumulation of violence against white people. Anarchy will become a regular thing. Our advice to people is don't get involved in conflict; take your firearms and shoot your way to safety as a last resort."

This quote offers, albeit, one perspective on the situation in South Africa following the death of Mandela. These words remind us of the fear felt by a proportion of white South Africans. Clearly, this is not an all-encompassing expression of the South African people, but it confronts us with the unresolved tensions and the enduring lack of trust among a big part of the people on a day to day basis.

South Africa is made up of a mixture of people, eleven official languages, and a broad diversity of cultures and traditions. With the end of colonial rule and the apartheid era, a deeply divided society embarked on a gradual process of democratisation and unification. Throughout the country’s history, South Africans have been victims of a long series of violent incidents, damaging the social fabric in some places more than in others. The violence and divisions have been so strong that this has led some groups of white people to build gated communities, leaving others locked down in poverty within townships. In townships inequalities are also visible where inhabitants with higher incomes reside in wealthier areas whilst those on lower incomes live on the margins of society. Consider Cape Town as a telling example: it has been called “a city of two tails”, illustrating the coexistence of the most affluent South Africans with the poorest almost within eyesight of each other – as any visitor travelling from the airport to the city center will witness.

To illustrate the economic inequality of 2013, the following paragraph gives a striking description.

Using the national poverty line of $43 per month (in current prices), 47 percent of South Africans remain poor. In 1994, this figure was 45.6 percent. More jarring, the country’s unemployment rate is 25.4 percent, while the Gini coefficient, which measures inequality, is at 0.69, marking the country as one of the most unequal in the world.

Simply bearing in mind the differences between the black townships “Diepsloot”, “Alexandra” and the residential and business center “Sandton” gives a vivid example of the geographical divide between black and white people. During apartheid black and white communities were separated in specific geographical areas and for the majority of the population these divisions remain a reality.The distance between “Sandton” and “Diepsloot” is around 24 km and between “Alexandra” and “Sandton” is around 7 km.

On another account, xenophobia seems to lay skin deep in South Africa. In some areas fear and anger toward foreigners is closer to the surface than in other parts. When in2008 xenophobic violence surfaced, and was said to have started in Alexandra (after which the violent incidents spread through the country), nationals and internationals condemned the violence. During the 2008 violence the practice of “necklacing” returned. “Necklacing” involves placing a tyre soaked in petrol around the victim's neck and body and setting it on fire.

Then there were the incidents at the Marikana platimum mine close to Rustenburg between August and September 2012, where the police shot on the protesters who were demanding a pay rise. It was noted to be the most deadly action of the South African police since the end of apartheid in 1994.

Against this background it may seem hard to find positive elements breaking the vicious circle of violence and divide among the people of South Africa. But definite steps were taken towards reconciliation. The historical landmark creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was one of them, taking place in Cape Town (dates of operation: 1995 – 2002). The Commission was established to help the Government of National Unity deal with the violence and the human rights abuses during apartheid. In South Africa in particular one of the main objectives of the new post-apartheid government under the leadership of Nelson Mandela was to build an inclusive, non-racial and democratic society.

Although there are many opinions about the effectiveness, impact and approach of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it was considered an important contribution to the process of healing and the beginning of a sense of national cohesion. Currently national cohesion is a long-term objective and the government of South Africa sees transformation and unification as one of the main targets outlined in the 2030 development plan.

Social cohesion is something that does not improve overnight; it takes commitment and a long-term plan based on the specific situation on the ground. For example, the Bokfontein community was selected by the Government for the implementation of activities organized under the Community Work Programme . Bokfontein is built up of two communities which were removed from their original place and forced to live together in the same area.

As a result of the approach and dialogues held with the inhabitants of Bokfontein through the Community Work Programme, the inhabitants prevented xenophobic violence:

“While many communities throughout South Africa were caught up in the violence that flared up during this time, the Bokfontein community emerged unscathed. Though coming from different backgrounds, they have accepted and learned to live together through realising that they are one people striving for a common goal – a better life for themselves and their children. They are an example for the other divided communities in South Africa of how a nation can learn to tolerate and appreciate diversity.”

South Africa suffers from a level of violence that is quite unique; on the other hand it also provided the fertile ground for several reconciliation initiatives aiming at uniting different communities and groups of people in the country. Obviously, it will take time to bury the remainders of apartheid and strengthen the feeling of national cohesion in the society.

At the same time, it might go faster than we think as the post-apartheid generation will for the first time cast their vote in the general elections of 2014.


Machteld Bierens de Haan has more than 10 years experience in international cooperation in Africa, Central Asia, Central America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. She specialised in good governance, democratisation, elections and public administration reform.

Written by Machteld Bierens de Haan and published on 18-January-2014




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