On the Inequity of Wealth in South Africa

2010 > South Africa

Warning: armed response
Locked out of shops
I am no stranger to wealth inequality. I’ve lived it personally when I was growing up poor, and I see it daily in Washington DC. Often wealth inequality is about class as much as race, yet in South Africa I found race to be the defining characteristic.

Class divide in cars

In every country I’ve visited in Africa, black Africans are the most populous people driving cars. Now there are some white people behind the wheel – be they natives and expats, but by in large, the driving population ethnicity mimics the overall population.

But not in South Africa. I was shocked to see only whites driving in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Black Africans were in shared minibus taxis or walking. Now I did see one or two black Africans driving, but they were in the extreme minority.

Poverty spotlights

Next, when I was flying into Cape Town, we passed over endless suburbs that looked just like American suburbs at night – street lights and house lights illuminating the dark.

Then we passed over dark sections of Cape Town, which I thought were parks till I realized they were townships pitch black in their poverty. Several were lit up, but with super bright stadium lights on giant poles that cast a communal glow over the township, illuminated like prisons of destitution.

No retail therapy

On the main shopping street of Cape Town, I found a physical manifestation of wealth inequity: metal gates at shop entrances. And I don’t mean metal shutters at night, but actual metal grates across door entrances during normal business hours.

Shopkeepers are so afraid of those without means to purchase; they require those with means to buzz in to their shops. Off-putting to say the least. Almost as much as the private security signs next to doors declaring “armed response“.