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27 Years Of Freedom: How Much Has South Africa Changed Since 1994?

Twenty years after we held our first non-racial democratic elections, South Africans are celebrating the end of Apartheid today. However, with the country in turmoil, how much better off is it after almost three decades of ANC governance?

Note: This article reflects the opinion of the writer and not necessarily that of The Essential Millennial

There isn’t much debate over the fact that the lives of most ordinary South Africans haven’t fundamentally changed. Everything from state healthcare, education and even our power grids is in disarray. And people are angry.

I was just a toddler when those elections were held, and have no idea what it was like to live under that oppressive regime. However, I’ve been able to observe the patterns that have emerged in the shaping of our political opinions over the course of our young democracy.

And I totally get why South Africans – black, white, and everything in between – feel frustrated by the state of affairs. And, having fallen just about everywhere on the political spectrum over the course of my lifetime, I have also been able to identify how our seemingly endless political frustration manifests in ignorant opinions that are simply not grounded in the facts.

Was life better in South Africa under Apartheid? – The facts

Given the nature of the conditions that the majority of South Africans live in and the National Party’s lack of interest in serving people of colour, statistics can be unreliable.

While Nelson Mandela, the ANC, et al. won the right to vote and several other democratic rights through the drawing up of a new Constitution in 1996, they knew their work wasn’t done. South Africa was politically liberated, but the second liberation, economic liberation, was always the real challenge.

The roots of Apartheid are, after all, grounded in economic competition. Before segregationist laws were formally passed in the 1940s, the development of South Africa’s mining industry laid the foundations for Apartheid. For example, the English-run government implemented a “hut tax” that black communities had to pay for each hut in their community to induce them to leave the countryside and work in the mines.

Over the next 60 years, a wealth disparity that existed between black South Africans and their colonial oppressors (and, later, white Afrikaners) only grew wider and wider, with each new instance of legislated racism.

Consequentially, in the year 1994, South Africa had a GDP per capita of $3,445 per annum. By 2011, that number was $8,007. At the end of 2019, after 10 years of Jacob Zuma’s atrocious terms as president, that number had fallen to $6,001. So, in terms of economic output, South Africans are doing almost twice as well, even after an economic downturn… prior to Covid at least…

Now, consider the fact that the literacy rate in South Africa was just 76.2% in 1995. By 2015, that number had risen to 94.37%. Infant mortality was estimated by the World Health Organization in 1980 to be 12/1000 for White South Africans, 120/1000 for Black people, and 197/1000 for black people living in rural areas. Overall, infant mortality has shrunk from 47.25 deaths per 1000 births to 23.57 in 2020. By the end of 2020, the unemployment rate in South Africa rose to a frightening 32.5%, but it was at 30.14% back in 1994… when there was no pandemic shutting down industries left, right and centre.

By just about every metric you can find, putting the political oppression of Apartheid aside for now, every day life for ordinary South Africans, particularly black people is objectively better – by some distance. They’re coming off of a particularly low base and can and should certainly do far, far better. But any suggestion that life is worse is preposterous.

So what’s all the fuss about?

As my political opinions have become more informed, having been raised by people who were brainwashed by the slanted education system and media coverage of the Apartheid era, I’ve obviously been exposed to the opinions of white people who are convinced that “life was better under Apartheid”… even for black people.

This is because life was better under Apartheid… for white people. They take a view of the world that remains in the bubble of Cape Towns suburbs, where they have the same conversations with their friends and aren’t met with any opposing opinions (which haven’t changed or been reexamined since the 80s). They send their kids to the same traditional boys schools that remain almost completely monochromatic, but think they know everything about poverty because they drive to Cape Town International airport a couple of times a year.

However, when you grew up in the same suburbs prior to 1994, the most exposure you’d really get to black South Africans as a white person would be through interactions with domestic workers. In 2021, that hasn’t radically changed. Yet people are perfectly okay with assuming life was better under Apartheid because the roads looked better – where they lived at least – and white public schools provided high quality education. They fail to recognise that white and black people live very different lives, but back then, it was even worse.

When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression

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In 2003, the mean salary for a white South African was R11,249. For black people, it was R2,437. Over the next nine years, the increase in median salaries stood at a measly 7%. For black people, median salaries rose by 23% – but hey still earn roughly four times less than white South Africans.

So while we all live remarkably different and separated lives to this day, white South Africans perceive a negligible black elite that’s growing at a rapid rate and have massive political influence and/or power. They perceive black elites, who have been able to achieve some degree of class mobility, as a function of affirmative action and attribute that class mobility to their stagnating wages and falling standards of living for the ostensibly economically excluded white man.

Meanwhile, the endlessly disenfranchised victims of Apartheid and ANC incompetence, have yet to see the de facto end of Apartheid. They’re still poor, landless and have little to no access to healthcare, education, public transport and every other service that the Apartheid government denied them.

Consequentially, we all continue to point fingers, without taking into consideration how differently other South Africans perceive this world we’re living in. Nor do we accept, that there are some kinds of traumas (arising almost exclusively out of poverty) that white South Africans can and never will understand. And soon enough, we’ll have an entirely new generation of “born frees” who never experienced the brutal Apartheid regime. And they won’t have the experiences to refute the abstract idea that life was better back then. So they’ll be easy to convince and to radicalise when exposed to dangerous ideas propagated by bitter white men who are looking to project their lack of personal progress onto the country at large.

The value of freedom cannot be understated

Twenty-seven years later, South Africa is a better place. We have political freedom and the quality of life has improved. These are the facts.

Can we do better? Has the ANC done enough?

For sure, we certainly seem to have wasted 27 years for what may only be considered marginally better lives and way off of what the standard of living conditions should be. But, to suggest that life has gotten worse since our iconic generation of liberators put an end to Apartheid is spitting in the face of their legacy… even if you feel that what came after hasn’t been up to scratch.

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