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SA has made progress, but deprivation still bears apartheid scars

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South Africa has made remarkable progress in redressing its historically and mainly race based deprivations but a lot still needs to be done, explains Professor Ronelle Burger.

Decades of discriminatory policies have left deep scars across South Africa’s social landscape, creating one of the most unequal and polarised societies in the world. It’s been 22 years since the party of Nelson Mandela came to power with a promise of reversing the racial deprivations.

How successful has the ANC been?

Our study examines the enduring spatial and racial dimensions of poverty and deprivation in South Africa. We took a multidimensional approach to assess progress. This enabled us to reflect the reduction in deprivation attributable to the improved affordability and expanded coverage of government services.

Previous studies have tracked poverty trends over segments of the post-apartheid period. None have considered multidimensional deprivation over the past two decades. We developed a poverty index with nine dimensions of deprivation. These included education, employment, dwelling type, overcrowding, access to electricity, water, telephone, sanitation and refuse collection.

Using this multidimensional index as well as census data our analysis found that there was a remarkable improvement in deprivation levels between 1996 and 2011. There is evidence of redress taking place. But it also finds that geography and race continue to play an important role in explaining patterns of deprivation in the post-apartheid South Africa.

History of deprivation

During the colonial and apartheid era the government restricted the geographical settlement choices and freedom of movement of black South Africans. These policies were also accompanied by large regional discrepancies in government spending, entrenching the association between place and poverty.

The resulting strong racial dimension and distinct spatial footprint of poverty have impeded post-apartheid change and mobility by magnifying the social distance between the deprived and the affluent. In South Africa, deprived households are largely black or coloured and tend to live on the periphery of the cities and towns.

The racial divide is further deepened by its association with cultural and language divides. In many countries in the world dimensions such as race, income and geography tend to coincide and overlap. But these cuts run far deeper in South African society where the divisions were engineered by discriminatory policies and legislation.

Investment to improve equity

The South African government has invested significant effort in improving equity. Interestingly the earliest reforms predated the official end of apartheid. In the 1970s the apartheid government started to equalise social spending by race and area.

More policy reversals followed in the 1980s. Further reforms were introduced following the official fall of apartheid in 1994.

Aiming to redress apartheid inequalities, Nelson Mandela’s post-apartheid government reorganised the provincial structures. The new government decentralised the bureaucracy and approved budgetary shifts to favour weaker and more deprived provinces.

These initiatives radically improved access to key services. Between 1996 and 2011:

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