Picture: GCIS
Picture: GCIS

SA is the most unequal country in the world. The richest 10% of South Africans lay claim to 65% of national income and 90% of national wealth — the largest 90:10 gap in the world.

These inequities are mirrored in the education system, where 20% of schools are broadly functional, and 80% are mostly dysfunctional. Because of this, two decades after apartheid, it is still the case that the life chances of the average South African child are determined not by their ability, hard work or diligence, but by the colour of their skin, the province of their birth, and the wealth of their parents.

The reality is so deterministic that before a child’s seventh birthday one can predict with some precision whether they will inherit a life of chronic poverty and sustained unemployment, or a dignified life and meaningful work.

The magnitude of these inequities is incredible. We have private schools charging R300,000 a year, and public schools where children drown in pit latrines. In 2018, the top 200 high schools had more students in matric achieving distinctions in mathematics (80%-plus) than the remaining 6,600 combined. Put differently, 3% of SA high schools produce more maths distinctions than the remaining 97%. In a few years, when we look back on three decades of democracy, it is this conundrum — the stubbornness of inequality and its patterns of persistence — that will stand out as most in need of explanation, justification and analysis. This is because inequality needs to be justified; you need to tell a story about why this level of inequality is acceptable or unacceptable.

As South Africans, what is the story that we tell ourselves about inequality and how far we have come since 1994? Have we accepted our current trajectory as the only path out of stubbornly high and problematically patterned inequality? Are there different and preferential equilibriums we have not yet thought of or explored? In practical terms, how does one reach a more equitable distribution of teachers, resources or learning outcomes? And what are the political and financial price tags for doing so?

Our post-apartheid education system is an awkward fusion of apartheid systems serving post-apartheid society. What the apartheid government used to perpetuate privilege and act as a lever for rapid, poor-white social mobility, post-apartheid society uses as a lever for black middle-class mobility.

Today black and coloured learners make up 60% of those attending former whites-only fee-charging schools. Thus, a small, separate and functional school system that was created to privilege one section of the population and exclude others has remained intact. But the discriminating principle has morphed over time from race to fees.

Reflecting on our particular journey, we can see that SA has become a case study of how politics and policy interact with unequal starting conditions to perpetuate a system of poverty and privilege.

We are witnessing a process unfolding where an unjustifiable and illegitimate racial education system (apartheid) morphs and evolves to one that is more justifiable and somewhat nonracial, all the while accommodating a small privileged class of South Africans who are not bound to the shared fate of their fellow citizens.

The post-apartheid government has made important strides: educational outcomes are improving; the child support grant has significantly reduced poverty and deprivation for large swathes of the country; and access to basic services has undeniably improved across the board.

Yet we must also be honest and say that our collective political imagination has come up short. We lack a believable vision of a more equal country in which everyone has basic dignity. Even more so, we lack a believable plan of how to get there.

While there has been some tinkering around the edges of the political and economic possibilities available to us, we cannot point to a countrywide initiative that has made significant inroads into SA’s gross inequity.

We need bolder policies and bolder politicians. We need our elected officials to actually visit the pit latrines that our children drown in. Consultants prophesying coding and tech must actually speak to children in the 26% of schools that still don’t have running water. Let them drink laptops.

Surely we can muster the political will and societal shame to put an end to these visceral daily injustices?

We need officials who have the courage and mandate to fire the corrupt or incompetent officials shuffling between government ministries with no consequences. But we also need those with the moral clarity to take on comfortable elites who resist wealth taxes, land reform and social housing.

Whatever the story is that we keep telling ourselves to justify our obscene levels of inequality, the poor and excluded will not believe it forever.

Spaull is a senior researcher at Stellenbosch University. He is co-editor with Jonathan Jansen of South African Schooling: The Enigma of Inequality (forthcoming from Springer), of which this is an edited extract