JUST a few days ago, on 9 March 2022, the World Bank confirmed what most of us already knew: that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world.
In that category, we sit right at the top of 164 countries in the World Bank’s global poverty database, based on household income generation.
We also sit in a region of inequality: Botswana, Eswatini and Namibia are among the 15 most unequal countries, and despite recent improvements, Lesotho still ranks among the top 20%, according to the report.
The drivers of rampant inequality in South Africa are daunting.
Marie Francoise Marie-Nelly, the World Bank country director for this region, says these drivers are “inherited circumstances over which an individual has little or no control”. This is despite high government spending on education and health. Examples of inherited circumstances include location, gender, age, parental background, race and low levels of land ownership.
This describes how an analyst experiences inequality. How South Africans experience it is on a much deeper level.
I thought I knew what poverty and inequality felt like from my own upbringing during apartheid. My ambition back then was to not have to survive on pap and sugared water every day. But when I hear about what poverty and inequality looks like today for most South Africans, I realise how lucky I was growing up.
As many may know, my first school classroom in Marapyane village was under a tree. My father was a radio announcer with no more than a high school education but no matric. My mother was a domestic worker. She decided, when I was a child, to go back to school and get her matric so she could become a teacher.
We did our homework together on the table every night. My mother became my role model for success. My siblings and I were fortunate in that our parents encouraged us to get an education and made major sacrifices to pay for our university tuition during the years when we did not have bursaries. We did not have an easy life, but in our family we were taught the values that helped us build success.
I know that stories like mine inspire many people. So I encourage young people today to tell their own stories about the hardships they have overcome to achieve their university degree.
In 2017, when I was deputy vice-chancellor for research and internationalisation at Unisa, I invited new university graduates across the country to post their graduation pictures online and share their personal stories. I called the campaign #MakeEducationFashionable” – based on a public statement Dr Blade Nzimande made in 2011, in his capacity as Minister of Higher Education and Training. Since then, I have been running the #MakeEducationFashionable campaign every year on the first Friday of December.
I invited the young people with the most inspirational stories to chat with me online, so that others could also be inspired. And while I am always encouraged by these stories – because they describe situations that these new graduates will hopefully be able to leave – I am also often horrified. The young people who write to me today describe hardships that are far worse than my own experience.
Today, inequality’s grip is much harder to shake loose because so many families never had the opportunity to learn the skills my parents taught my siblings and me.
Today’s marginalised children are poor in ways I never dreamt of. Financial poverty is only part of the picture. Many families now also live in emotional poverty. Social skills poverty. Life skills poverty.
There are many reasons for this. Generations of our fellow South Africans grew up in child-headed homes because their parents and aunts and uncles died of diseases like HIV, Aids and tuberculosis.
Responsible for family back home
I’ve heard many university graduates speak of how their gogos held their families together. But what about the children who had no gogos or other relatives to help them? Today, many children live in single-parent homes, where the parent is absent because they are working. After school, these children often have to fend for themselves and their younger siblings. They are more likely to grow up without parental input, in desperate circumstances. And when they have children of their own, those desperate circumstances are likely to carry on for another generation.
Some of the stories I hear from young people today are about the breakdown of the family. Homes where the adults do not know how to parent their children. Homes where multiple families crowd into a small shack, where everybody sleeps in one bedroom or on the floor. Homes where the children have to fight each other for food. They may even have to fight adults for food. They come to university feeling responsible not just for their own education but for the livelihood of the family back home.
I grew up poor, but my mum and dad made sure that everyone had something to eat. I never grew up with the kind of strife that exists now in our poorest homes. Hearing these stories made me realise that, for a university student who comes from such a home, living in a university residence, having a quiet place to study and getting an education is a refuge from the life they knew while at high school.
Some people think the solution to the plight of these families is the basic income grant. The government may help people to buy food, but it will not provide the life skills South Africans need to help themselves out of poverty. And it’s not the government’s job to do that. It’s our job. Helping South Africa to grow and develop out of poverty and inequality is something we all need to do together.
We all know the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child”. You and I are that village. Raising South Africa out of poverty and inequality is our job. Not just for the sake of individuals, but for the sake of our country. South Africa’s potential cannot shine if we do not help each other to stand up and make a difference.
One example of this is the Golden Ark Care Centre in Soweto, which is supported by the Babalwa Ngonyama Foundation. The community leaders of Mzimhlophe, Soweto, took action to bridge the gap created by the HIV and AIDS pandemic in the township. They demonstrate what I mean by being the “village” for their community. Back then, in 2003, children from poor or parentless families were leaving school to try to earn an income – and often being recruited for illegal or dangerous work, while suffering from malnutrition and other illnesses. Over the past 17 years, the organisation has assisted more than 650 children.
A model to be replicated
Today, Golden Ark feeds up to 200 children aged five to 18 every year. It also provides a vital support structure for their education. When they go home in the evening, they have been helped with their homework and fed while spending the afternoon with people who care for them. This in turn helps parents and caregivers at home.
The Golden Ark works with local schools to identify children and teens who are most in need. It provides a home environment where these children can have a hot meal in the mornings before school, and a safe place to go to after school, where lunch, social interaction, fun extramural activities and a conducive study environment are provided.
This is a model that can be replicated in other marginalised communities as a way of recreating the kind of “village” support every child needs.
We all need to heed the call to give what we have to help South Africa to grow. We need to help others develop what they have so that they too can give to the success of South Africa.
Participating in the life of this “village” across our nation – by giving what we can, whether it is financial support, skills, education, or services that fellow South Africans can use to improve their lives – is part of our duty to each other. It is also our privilege. And in the long run, it is what will lift our country out of the trap of poverty and inequality where we now sit.
– Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng is vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town.