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As Election Arrives, South Africa World’s Most Unequal Country

A woman walks toward the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton (background) on a bridge that connects it to the black township of Alexandra.
As Election Arrives, South Africa World's Most Unequal Country
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The towns of Sandton and Alexandra tell a painful story about inequality in South Africa. The towns sit side-by-side outside the city of Johannesburg. But while one town is extremely rich, the other is extremely poor.

Sandton is known as Africa’s “richest square mile.” It has tall, shiny buildings and wealthy properties. Beside it, Alexandra – also called “Alex” – is a crowded black township that suffers from heavy crime. Alex was once the home of Nelson Mandela.

Even the air in Sandton feels different says activist Thembeni Manana. She notes that many people travel from Alexandra to Sandton every day to work in its shops and homes. In Sandton the air feels fresh, she says, as if people were using their air conditioners outside. But in Alex, she says, the air smells like waste and rats.

Children run to school in Alexandra township in Johannesburg, South Africa. Twenty-five years after the end of apartheid, inequality is still on display in South Africa.
Children run to school in Alexandra township in Johannesburg, South Africa. Twenty-five years after the end of apartheid, inequality is still on display in South Africa.

Angry protests took place in Alexandra in April, in part the result of campaigning for this week’s national election. But the protesters’ main criticism was not about the candidates. It was that South Africa should be far less unequal than it is now.

Unemployment in the country of 56 million people has risen past 25 percent. There are tire-burning protests almost every day over the lack of basic services in mostly black neighborhoods. Whites still control much of the wealth, while blacks cut their grass and clean their homes.

Fazila Farouk and Murray Leibbrandt are with the Southern Africa Labor and Development Research Unit at the University of Cape Town. Last year, they wrote that they found no whites living below the middle class. Instead, whites have improved their economic states since apartheid because South Africa’s economy sends such a large part of its national income to the top 10 percent.

Farouk and Leibbrandt wrote that half of South Africans are in homes with per capita earnings of 1,149 rand ($90) or less a month. And they have little chance to change this situation even though they work hard as security guards or housekeepers.

Thembeni Manana knows the feeling well. The 28-year-old activist works with the Greater Alexandra Chamber of Commerce. Manana helped plan last month’s protests.

“With us, we decided enough is enough. We want to challenge the system,” she said.

Manana presented a list of demands, including that:

  • Schools in Alexandra should have 30 children for each teacher instead of 70.
  • Street sellers should be permitted to supply their products to food stores. This would help them take part in the larger economy.
  • Children should be able to grow up in homes with more than one room so family members have privacy.

Criticisms like those discussed by Manana are not limited to Alexandra but exist in many of South Africa’s black townships. And this week’s election likely will show how tired the public is of asking again and again for change.

South Africa was once famous for its long lines of voters in the first democratic election 25 years ago, but that has changed.

“I think people are just tired of voting,” Manana said.

She said voters see that political parties are “only out to play during election time” but then disappear until the next election.

I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.

Cara Anna wrote this story for the Associated Press. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.


Words in This Story

square milen. a unit of measure for an area equal to the area of a square with each side length of one standard mile

townshipn. often underdeveloped racially segregated areas that, from the late 19th century until the end of apartheid, were reserved for non-whites

air conditionern. a machine that is used to cool and dry the air in a building or room

tiren. a rubber ring that usually contains air and that fits around the wheel of a vehicle, such as a car or bike

per capitaadj. by or for each person

challengev. to question the action or authority of someone