I recently returned from five months of living and working in South Africa. Among many other things, I learned that it is much easier to see other countries’ flaws than to confront our own.
In 1994, South Africa’s evil apartheid government fell, and Nelson Mandela – one of the 20th century’s greatest political and moral leaders – became president. Twenty-two years later, Mandela is gone, and the country is teetering on the edge of an abyss. Its crises include feckless political leadership, increasing cronyism and corruption, a struggling natural resource-based economy and, to add salt to the many wounds, a historically severe drought.
But South Africa’s most intractable problem, one that poses an existential threat to its future, is severe and systematic racial inequality. Understanding South Africa’s race problem requires a quick review of history.
Under apartheid, which endured in varying forms for generations, white South Africans – who comprised approximately 9 percent of the population – controlled practically all of the country’s productive agricultural land and means of production. South Africa’s laws prevented black and so-called “coloured” people from owning land or otherwise accumulating capital.
The laws also sought to ensure that black and coloured people, while prevented from living near whites and from obtaining anything other than rudimentary education, would be available to furnish their labor to white-owned businesses, factories, farms and mines. For generations, South African whites prospered economically, and in many cases amassed huge fortunes, by suppressing black and coloured people and exploiting their labor.
Not surprisingly, when Mandela took power in 1994, South Africa faced overwhelming racial inequality. Minority whites were loaded with economic and social capital; majority black and coloured people had virtually nothing and no means of obtaining it. Racial inequality was a ticking time bomb, but world events prevented Mandela and the ruling African National Congress from defusing it.
The main impediment was the emergence of the so-called Washington Consensus. The Soviet Union had recently fallen, the Cold War had been won and China had not yet emerged as a global power. The Consensus, formulated largely by American policymakers, held that developing countries’ only path to prosperity and stability was to allow unfettered markets to work their magic. Thus, the proper role for South Africa’s government, as well as governments across the developing world, was to defend the country’s borders but otherwise stay out of the way while unregulated markets created wealth – wealth that eventually would trickle down to those most in need.
In South Africa, that meant the new post-apartheid government had a limited role in addressing the country’s extreme inequality. According to the Consensus, any attempts at redistributing land or wealth from whites to black and coloured people would have to involve willing sellers and willing buyers. The government’s role would be limited to facilitating, and at times subsidizing, the exchanges.
The Washington Consensus has since faded, partly because it exacerbated rather than relieved poverty and suffering in the developing world, partly because China emerged on the world scene and offered an alternative approach. In South Africa, market-based poverty reduction and redistribution have failed miserably. After 22 years, little agricultural land has changed hands, the economy is still overwhelmingly controlled by the white minority and huge numbers of black and coloured people live in dire poverty and despair.
Many times during my stay in South Africa, I watched as white people driving Mercedeses or Porsches or Maseratis roared past blacks and coloured people living in tin shacks. Indeed, the Gini coefficient, a widely accepted measure of inequality, ranks South Africa as the world’s most unequal country.
Here is the part that is difficult for Americans like me to see and to acknowledge: When it comes to race and inequality, we are disturbingly similar to South Africa. We, too, are among the most unequal societies in the world, and most of our wealth is disproportionately concentrated in the hands of white people.
We do not have a history of apartheid, not exactly – though there are unmistakable parallels and connections between apartheid and Jim Crow – but we do have a history of politically suppressing and economically exploiting black and brown people, a history that continued generations beyond the Emancipation Proclamation. Many contemporary white Americans’ economic and social capital was facilitated, if not directly produced, by slavery and its aftermath.
And yet, like South Africa, we have done precious little to address the searing inequality and fundamental unfairness that we created and that continues to wound our society. We, like South Africa, declared that a class of people who had been oppressed and exploited for generations were now “free” to compete in the marketplace. (Our history does include Reconstruction and the Great Society, two fleeting, quickly abandoned attempts to redress the wrong we had done.)
Yet addressing state-created inequality by telling a class of formerly oppressed people that they are free to compete on equal terms in the marketplace is like telling people that their futures depend on winning a bicycle race but that they, unlike their privileged competitors, must begin the race by building their own bicycles – no spare parts or tools to be provided.
During my time in South Africa, I befriended an Anglican priest, a white man who played an important role in the anti-apartheid struggle. He was fully aware of the threat to South Africa’s future posed by its systematic, crushing racial inequality. He expressed the hope that his country might find a “third way” forward. This new way would continue to rely on democratic governance and capitalism (unlike South Africa’s neighbor, Zimbabwe) but would acknowledge that government should play a role in addressing historic injustices by channeling resources toward the oppressed.
I fear it is too late for the United States to address our legacy of racial oppression and exploitation. Our political leaders and jurists have allowed us, even encouraged us, to walk away from the problem and pretend it does not exist. The results of our collective inaction are apparent in every morning’s newspaper. But it is not too late for South Africa to address racial inequality, to find a better way forward.
Thomas Kelley, a law professor, lives in Chapel Hill.