South Africa is a 'less equal place' now than under apartheid, author says

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Marco Werman: We heard Sheryl Ozinsky and Jeb’s story talking about the haves and have-nots in South Africa. So, why does that division persist so stubbornly in the country 20 years after the end of apartheid? Sociologist Katherine Newman has spent a lot of time on that question. She’s the co-author of "After Freedom: The Rise of the Post-apartheid Generation in Democratic South Africa.” Katherine, is South Africa a more equal place now that apartheid has been dismantled and replaced by democracy?


Katherine Newman: Sadly, no, it isn’t. It’s actually one of the most unequal societies on the face of the planet and has grown increasingly so in the post-apartheid period. That’s partly because it re-entered the world economy in which education and skills defined possibilities in the labor market to a much greater degree than was once the case and it is also still fundamentally an extractive economy and those do tend to be somewhat unequal societies. What I think is most important to recognize is that inequality is now not only between races but within racial categories. We’ve had a certain number of people, not an insignificant number of black Africans, who have done very well post-apartheid, and a vast majority that have sadly sunk even deeper into poverty.


Werman: Your book, “After Freedom,” evokes some parallels between apartheid and the segregated Jim Crow south in the US. Today, it’s also hard not to think about the Paris suburbs and immigration dislocation across Europe. But just in terms of the parallels between South Africa and the US, in terms of the residue of racist policies, what strikes you?


Newman: I was absolutely thunderstruck by the similarities to the deep south in the post-Civil War period. First, the racial lines are still very much line, but on either side of those color lines, you see tremendous differences by class, and that was what was striking to me in South Africa. I’m afraid we tend to think of it as a society divided by color and, to some degree, by language, and those divisions are there. But within each of those groups, there’s tremendous division according to whether or not someone has had an education, whether they have a crack at a white collar job as a consequence, and so we looked specifically at pairs of people who are within the same racial groups but have very different lives because some of them were able to gain an education and access the white collar labor market and others simply weren’t.


Werman: What do you think young South Africans and young Americans could learn from each other in 2015?


Newman: I think they could learn that they have a common history in the structures of racial segregation that define the lives of the generations that came before them, and they could understand that those residues have very long tentacles and tremendous impact. I think the fact that there are similarities can pull young people out of what I think is often a hermetically-sealed sense of the destiny of their own country, as if we were the only place that experienced these divisions and their long tentacles. But, in fact, it’s not the case--it’s true in South Africa as well as it is in other parts of the world.


Werman: What is the one most important thing we should know about South Africa right now in 2015?


Newman: That there is a rising generation that did not grow up under the heel of apartheid, or at least not into adulthood, that they are seeking solutions, that they are able to look across race lines despite this very deep and bitter history, that they are losing confidence in their leaders but not in the democratic institutions that define their country. They are proud to be a democracy but they’re looking for a reason to invest their hope in democratic decision-making. I think that is something not to be wasted, that we need to support their aspirations for democratic society because the alternatives in their region are not very palatable, and they worry about the failed states to the north of South Africa. They are desperate to ensure that South Africa doesn’t become one of them.


Werman: Katherine Newman, provost of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and co-author of "After Freedom: The Rise of the Post-Apartheid Generation in Democratic South Africa.” Katherine, greatly appreciate your thoughts. Thank you.


Newman: Thank you for having me.


Werman: We’re bringing you stories from South Africa all week as part of our special coverage “Across Women’s Lives.” One of those stories features a black woman in Cape Town who’s risen to great heights--literally. She’s a tower crane operator. See her story at PRI.ORG.