Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Breaking a Rainbow, Building a Nation 
Rekgotsofetse Chikane
Pan Macmillan

My generation has often been described as dormant and seemingly indifferent to the systemic economic oppression rampaging through the country. Yet, even though we were primed to be the generation that enjoyed the fruits of democracy without the scars of its past, here we are, angry that the fruit tastes bittersweet.

I am part of a generation that never faced the abuses of the apartheid system in its rawest legalised and normalised forms. I think about one story my father told me when I was growing up about how his father was once pulled over and beaten by a group of white men for having the audacity to overtake them.

Or how my family was arbitrarily dispossessed of their land in Bushbuckridge not once but twice, arbitrary acts that forced my grandfather eventually to move to Johannesburg to find work. He would ultimately leave his wife and children behind to join the apartheid government’s infamous migrant labour system.

My dad often tells me that he still finds it bizarre to walk into a bathroom and find a white man there. Such an interaction would not have been deemed acceptable in the past, yet here I am, not only sharing a bathroom with white people but spending weekends away with them as well.

For my generation, these rawest forms of discrimination remain present across the country but are not accepted in the same manner as they were in the past.

That being said, we face a different type of discrimination. It can be difficult to describe or pinpoint, yet you can always feel it in the air. We might not be dealing with an enemy that manifests itself as "Europeans Only" benches; we face an enemy that has the same ideals as the apartheid system, only now it wears a very different mask.

Though not brazen in its assault on one’s humanity, it remains almost equally effective in achieving its objective: the systematic oppression of black people.

Although I remain firmly in the sight of the enemy, as a coconut I have been privileged enough to be shielded from its more violent aspects. For the life of me, I can’t even begin to imagine the horrors that await black unemployed and poverty-stricken women in the many townships in SA.

Many of them have to contend with abusive men, who themselves are products of a broken system. For them, the enemy is both visceral and vicious in its violence towards them. For them, death and danger remain hidden in plain sight on every street.

The status quo, which was shifted into the shadows in favour of the rainbow-building project, was put firmly back in the spotlight through the resistance by young people both individually and collectively.

This resistance comes as a result of the combination of racial and gendered inequality, entrenched youth unemployment and racialised systemic poverty. In 2015, 30.4-million South Africans lived in poverty, with our poverty headcount increasing to 55.5% (from 53.2% in 2011).

According to Sharlene Swartz in Another Country: Everyday Social Restitution, "60% of black South Africans live below the poverty line compared to 4% of white South Africans, who also have an average household income that is six times that of black South Africans".

  • Youth unemployment in 2017 sat at 38.6%, with "58% of unemployed people aged between 15 and 34".
  • In addition to this, in 2017, 32.4% of young people aged 15–24 and 46% of 25 to 34-year-olds in 2016 were not in employment, education or training (NEET), with females making up the majority of this cohort.
  • SA’s youth unemployment is in a chronic state. Those who are NEET are particularly susceptible to a variety of social ills while simultaneously being denied the opportunity to improve their skills through education or gaining the necessary work experience to progress within the labour market.
  • The Gini coefficient — an index between 0 and 1 that measures the income inequality within a population — of SA is one of the highest in the world at 0.68. What makes SA’s inequality even more precarious is its racial composition, with black South Africans having a Gini coefficient of 0.65 and white South Africans 0.51.
  • Statistics seem still to belie the reality of many South Africans. Whether one wants to blame the ANC, white monopoly capital, imperial forces or the constitution for the ills of the country, the reality remains that we as South Africans have not only failed in our responsibility to the most disenfranchised in the country, but we have given up thinking about how to change our current circumstances.

There is no question that the country has seen many gains over the past two-and-a-half decades. We have witnessed the expansion of public housing, health-care provision, educational services, and increased access to services such as water and electricity.

In the face of an Aids epidemic, we can even claim an increase in life expectancy, a further indication of some of the many victories South Africans should be pleased about. So it is bizarre to think that my generation has inherited some of the exact same problems that plagued the country during apartheid.

With all the gains SA has made since 1994, why do we still not only fall victim to systemic economic oppression but have both rationalised and institutionalised its presence?

Often our efforts to change our society will lead to equal attempts to keep our society the same. If one were to think of SA’s current social make-up as being in the form of an equilibrium, whose resting point is the maintenance of systemic racial and gendered inequality, entrenched youth unemployment and racialised systemic poverty, then efforts to change this equilibrium are merely seen as positive and negative amplifiers which cancel each other out.

Our society since 1994 has maintained the endemic nature of all three of their wicked problems. That SA has genuinely advanced since the end of apartheid is a myth.

• Rekgotsofetse Chikane graduated last year with a master's in public policy from Oxford University. This is an edited and shortened extract of Breaking a Rainbow, Building a Nation.