GIE: The effects of poverty in South Africa

Alexis Boyle (BSBA '16)

Alexis Boyle (BSBA ’16)

In our pre-departure sessions, our Global Immersion Elective class discussed the history of South Africa and apartheid in depth. However, it wasn’t until I was in the country that I could really grasp the legacy of apartheid and widespread problems facing the country.

Adrian Saville, an economist who came and spoke with us, gave an accurate description when he said “poverty lives side-by-side with wealth in South Africa.” The country has a grossly skewed income distribution, with 50 percent of South Africans living on less than $1.50 per day. Adrian mentioned living in a beautiful estate, while a shantytown is just five kilometers down the road from him.

A township in South Africa

A township in South Africa

The legacy of apartheid was most apparent to me once we started driving along the countryside. My eyes were glued to the bus window when we drove by a shantytown for the first time. I had never seen anything like it – miles and miles of small tin shacks and makeshift “homes” on the outskirts of the cities.

As a result of high unemployment throughout the country, millions of South Africans live in these townships. One of my favorite speakers, Melani Prinsloo, provided us with insights after having worked on a township lifestyle research project for the past 10 years. She really challenged us to think about our perception of poverty and pointed out that problems often look different the closer you get.

“If a country’s Gross Domestic Product increases each year, but so does the percentage of its people deprived of basic education, health care, and other opportunities, is that country really making progress?”Martha Nussbaum, author and philosopher
Melani Prinsloo

Melani Prinsloo

Melani also introduced me to the concept of “unfreedoms” and how being poor is a form of unfreedom. An example of an “unfreedom” she gave is that poor people have to buy more expensive groceries because they don’t have the means to get to a cheaper supermarket. Melani lectured that poor is not a social class because it is not a homogeneous group. She believes the poor are a product of an economic system – and according to Adrian, there is almost no social mobility in South Africa.

In one of our small group sessions with entrepreneurs in Johannesburg, I had the opportunity to speak with a man named Leon. He works to change the perception of the townships by organizing immersions into the towns. I was very surprised to hear that 80 percent of white South Africans will never go into the townships during their lifetime. However, our group spent the day in two different townships: Soweto and Mfuleni.

The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum

The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum

Soweto is historically rich because the town was the site of the Soweto Uprising in 1976 during apartheid. Students protested the compulsory use of Afrikaans as the main teaching language in black schools and many were killed, including a young boy named Hector Pieterson. Today, the Hector Pieterson Museum is dedicated to these children. Soweto was also home to Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, both Nobel Peace Prize winners.

While touring the township, we also got to witness a peaceful protest led by the African National Congress concerning poor service delivery.

A peaceful protest led by the African National Congress

A peaceful protest led by the African National Congress

While in Cape Town, we were escorted into Mfuleni by some of the locals who lived there. I felt extremely out of place when we arrived in our tour bus. Once we got out though, I was able to see the living conditions up close and interact with members of the community. Lots of the younger school children would run up and give us high fives when we were helping Roslin, a South African entrepreneur, sell jackets at an intersection. She told us many locals rarely see white Americans in the townships, which was confirmed as many stared at me in passing.

Despite our generally positive experience in Mfuleni, Roslin informed me that we were in one of the safer townships in Cape Town on a “safe” street – many townships are much worse.

Children run alongside the bus

Children running alongside the bus as it drives away

Although there is a school located in Mfuleni, Roslin chooses to send her daughter to a better school an hour away. She also commented that most townships don’t have households with two parents and are very dangerous after dark. The high unemployment rates coupled with poverty breed high crime rates. The barbed wire and electric fences surrounding houses are a constant reminder that you are in an unsafe area.

As we drove away, little kids ran after our bus. It was hard for me to imagine growing up in a township and the standard of living endured by the marginalized majority.

By Alexis Boyle (BSBA ’16)