By Ryan Ravens
Despite South Africa’s substantial B-BBEE policies, a recent World Bank study of no fewer than 164 countries, sees South Africa ranked number one globally as the most unequal country in the world. Almost 30 years since the end of apartheid, and our country continues to be plagued by a widening level of inequality and poverty that increasingly threatens to rip our society violently apart.
In addition, a global pandemic along with increasing geo-political crises – with its ever-widening international economic impact, and the brutal reality is that socio-economic conditions, for many South Africans, will continue to deteriorate.
Solving this crisis will require significantly more than race-based policies.
As far back as 2003, our government introduced Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE). Touted to address the inequalities suffered under the apartheid regime, and to create an inclusive economy, B-BBEE has fallen far short of its desired outcome to transform our society. Despite the opportunistic political rhetoric from opposition parties, and obvious shortcomings of B-BBEE implementation – from tender corruption through to corporate scorecards leveraged as a competitive advantage rather than that for which it was intended, the fact remains that these policies have simply not gone far enough to redress the gross inequality we continue to suffer as the legacy of apartheid.
To create a culture of equal opportunity, that is sustainable and more easily able to withstand ongoing external threats, we need to lift our gaze from a single approach. We need to authentically embrace – and begin to shift – the undeniable interwovenness of multiple injustices preventing an equal playing field.
Gender gaps & Gender-Based Violence (GBV)
Despite a majority female population (51.1%, StatsSA, mid-2020), substantial gender gaps remain across our country’s workplace, compounded by salary inequalities.
We need to look beyond race and confront what clearly remains a toxic patriarchal society. Evidenced by the embarrassingly cringeworthy interview of a highly qualified female candidate for South Africa’s Chief Justice, through to shocking reports of sexual predation within our own local government – we need to change the narrative clearly still prevalent across our society.
We need to honestly examine our own prejudices, be it overt or more subtle. Our young women are our future. Yet, there can be no equal society when most of South Africa’s citizens suffer subjugation, live in fear or are unable to earn a living wage.
An efficient public transport system
The lack of investment in the maintenance of our country’s railway infrastructure, exacerbated by unprecedented levels of theft – and South Africa’s railway transport system is in tatters.
Apartheid spatial planning continues to plague many parts of SA, particularly in the Western Cape where attempts to create integrated housing in the most affluent parts of the city have been met with fierce resistance. Public transport remains a critical means of connecting black commuters to economic opportunities in the city.
Despite being the most affordable means of commuter transport, the Western Cape’s weekday train services have decreased from 444 per day to just 151 per day since 2019. With more than 500,000 commuters making use of rail transportation daily – an efficient, reliable, and safe rail system is crucial to employment opportunities and a sustainable life.
Of further concern, the astronomical hikes in fuel prices, and its impact on commuter taxi fares, will serve as a further impediment to accessing economic opportunities.
When we deny our citizens the right to cost-effective and reliable public transportation, the never-ending spiral of inequality continues. With 18.9% of our population (about 11 million citizens) living on less than R28 per day, we will never move past this vicious cycle without affordable public transport infrastructure connecting our underserviced communities to the greater economy.
South Africa has one of the most unequal school systems in the world, with an estimated 85% of our learners attending poorly funded, dysfunctional schools.
Our learners are therefore poorly prepared for tertiary education – of the average 1 million learners who write the Matric examinations each year, only 150,000 receive marks qualifying them for university attendance (current university capacity can however only accommodate 70,000).
Astronomical tertiary fees render this opportunity beyond the reach of many. For those fortunate enough to receive financial aid, the challenges continue. University fees and accommodation may be covered, but how does one begin to hold one’s own when the aid provided does not stretch to cover essential items such as basic nutrition or the purchase of prescribed textbooks?
University dropout rates for first year students are as high as 50-60%, with financial and academic shortcomings listed as two of the top reasons.
Education is the cornerstone – without which an empowered life, let alone a prosperous one, is severely hampered. Without access to quality education, and the ability for our students to successfully complete it, we will not break the ongoing and ever-increasing cycle of inequality.
Given the complex array of interwoven injustices across our society, we need much more than simple race-based measures to overcome our levels of inequality. In order to create a healthy society with equal opportunity for all, and in which business can thrive – enabling prosperous and sustainable lives, we need commitment to far greater measures that take into account the magnitude of injustice faced by our citizens.
It is too easy to simply game our B-BBEE scorecards to create a veneer of transformation whilst levels of inequality threaten to rip our society apart. From ensuring our employees (home or office) receive a ‘living wage’ as opposed to a ‘minimum wage’, actively challenging gender bias, or providing safe transportation for our workers – there’s much that business can do to contribute towards a more equitable and sustainable society.
The question is not what should happen at a policy level, but rather – what more can business do right now to create a sustainable nation in which all are equal? Without inclusive social justice, it will become near impossible to operate a sustainable business over the long-term.