South Africa Faces Up to ‘Wage Apartheid’

AFP, May 10, 2008

Whites in South Africa earn five times more than their black counterparts on average, according to a new study, illustrating the enduring legacy of apartheid 14 years after its abolition.

A study done for the UASA union made waves in the Rainbow Nation last week when it showed that whites bring home 450 percent more than blacks on average and 400 percent more than their mixed race peers.

In line with the global trend, education is the single biggest determinant of earning power, it concluded, but in a country with South Africa’s history the issue has a powerful racial dimension.

“That blacks weren’t allowed on to certain beaches (during the apartheid era of whites-only rule) can be changed overnight but education has a long-lasting legacy,” said the author of the research, economist Mike Schussler.

“My concern is that our current education system hasn’t overcome that legacy so we are going to be stuck with the problems for a while longer.”

Under apartheid, says Marius Roodt, researcher at the South African Institute for Race Relations, whites had access to “near world class” schools and universities.

On the other hand, “African people were seen as unworthy of an education and 14 years isn’t going to be enough to address that,” he told AFP.

This hangover has been tackled from an economic point of view—resources for schools are now equally distributed between historically white and historically black institutions.

“Funding is pretty equal across the spectrum. The difference now lies in the fact that historically black schools are performing dismally,” says Servaas Van der Berg, an economist and wage specialist from South Africa’s University of Stellenbosch.

Underachievement can be ascribed to the lower quality of teachers in the mainly black townships as well as social issues related to attitudes to education.

Research in other countries has shown that parental achievement is critical—a child of parents who went to university is more likely to stay in the education system longer and gain a degree.

Van der Berg underlines that other factors should be taken into account when looking at current wage distribution patterns in South Africa, which reflect the racially divided past but are not necessarily indicative of discrimination today.

Whites are concentrated in urban areas, where wages are higher and skilled employment and the services industry are more prevalent. Blacks dominate agricultural, rural areas.

“During apartheid the ideology was that blacks were unnecessary in urban areas and they were supposed to go back to their homelands,” he explains.

Another factor affecting the disparity in earnings is statistical—due to differing birth and death rates, the white population is on average older, and therefore richer, than the black population.

One of the most comprehensive studies of the labour market was published by specialists Rulof Burger and Rachel Jafta in 2006 called “Returns to Race: Labour Market Discrimination in Post-Apartheid South Africa.”

It concluded that wages were no longer determined by simple race discrimination—blacks being overlooked or worse paid for jobs because of their skin colour—but were mostly influenced by educational attainment.

“There appears to have been a shift away from ‘pure discrimination’ and towards differential returns to eduation,” the study concluded.

Burger explained to AFP that on average a white worker completes more years of education than the average black worker—12.6 years as opposed to 8.8—who also “still receives an education of inferior quality.”

“This is a remnant of the apartheid legacy which the department of education has so far been unable to rectify,” Burger says, adding the unemployment rate for blacks is five times higher than that of whites.

Policy responses to the economic inequality caused by the apartheid system have centred on increasing funding for black schools, affirmative action and land redistribution.

Burger and Jafta found affirmative action had led to a narrowing of wage differences for the top, most highly paid jobs, but had “had no observable effect on the racial employment gap.”

The key therefore to achieving a more equal distribution of wages among the white, black and mixed race population is harmonising education standards across the country, say commentators.

But this most vital of objectives is far from being achieved.

“Former white schools are still pretty good but we still see in African townships that schools are dysfunctional,” said Roodt.

Schussler agrees, saying: “We are spending a lot on education and we’re just not getting the results we need.”

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