More than one specter haunts South Africa

This week, the World Bank issued a report, South Africa Economic Update: Inequality of Opportunity. The report accurately and unsurprisingly details the depth of inequality in the new South Africa. For some, this report, and even more inequality itself, proves that “the spirit of Verwoerd still haunts” the nation. For others, the report details a present day threat to the future, a future that should be one of growth. For others, it’s something of a mix of national and global. A global sluggish economy takes a special form in a nation marked, perhaps constituted, by “a yawning gap between the nation’s richest and poorest citizens”.

Everywhere the reports comment on the persistence and roots of this inequality. Rightly so. As some note, the report itself identifies the subjects of the inequality: “In addition to being young and living in certain locations, being a woman and non-white still matters, increasing the likelihood of being unemployed or underemployed significantly (over and above any impact of these attributes on education).policy—one of the rare policy goals on which a political consensus is easier to achieve.”

Elsewhere, the report suggests, “Whether a person is born a boy or a girl, black or white, in a township or leafy suburb, to an educated and well-off parent or otherwise should not be relevant to reaching his or her full potential: ideally, only the person’s effort, innate talent, choices in life, and, to an extent, sheer luck, would be the influencing forces. This is at the core of the equality of opportunity principle, which provides a powerful platform for the formulation of social and economic policy—one of the rare policy goals on which a political consensus is easier to achieve.”

As far as the report goes, it’s fine. The data seems more or less reasonable and in line with many other reports on inequality in South Africa. The history, however, has one glaring omission. The World Bank itself. Nowhere in a report on the roots and persistence of inequality in South Africa is there any discussion of the role that the World Bank, the IMF, and other powerful multinational agencies played in the development of South African economic policies, from Kempton Park to Mangaung and beyond.

If this report suggests that South Africa is still haunted by the spirit of Verwoerd, it also suggests, by omission, other specters must be named as well, starting with the authors of the so-called Washington Consensus.

* About the video. As Equal Education members and supporters from across South Africa gathered at the movement’s first national congress in Johannesburg last week, the question of what it means to be an “equaliser” was front and center. In the video, five learners [from Khayelitsha] from Equal Education’s Social Activism and Documentary Filmmaking workshop reflect on their experiences as equalisers. This was also their first time producing, filming and editing interviews. [The learners were trained by students from The New School—Palika Makam, Jordan Clark and Carlos Cagin—who are in South Africa for two months supervised by AIAC’s Sean Jacobs.]

Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an Associate Professor at George Washington University.

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