There’s a reason photographers like to take pictures of Cape Town, South Africa’s second largest city, from out over the Atlantic Ocean. From this vantage point, cerulean waters give way to a long line of luxurious sea-facing apartments that hug the Atlantic seaboard. Others nestle on the cliffs of Bantry Bay and overlook the sandy beaches of Clifton. To the left, the harbor, city center and manicured parks nestle at the foot of city’s most famous peak, Table Mountain.
At the end of October, this picturesque scene was disrupted by an incursion from the real Cape Town, hidden from view behind the mountain, where the vast majority of the city’s 3.7 million inhabitants live.
Thousands of residents from the city’s poorer neighborhoods led a protest to demand land for houses, access to decent sanitation and better economic opportunities. They marched through the city center to the office of Helen Zille, the premier of the Western Cape province. In the neighborhoods where the protesters live, most people scrape by on less than $3 a day, many live in flood- and fire-prone shacks, unemployment exceeds 50 percent, and the socioeconomic ills of crime and drug and alcohol abuse are present in disproportionate quantities.
“We live in very, very hard conditions,” one protester, Grace Boltney, told a local news site, the Daily Maverick. “We don’t have toilets. Our shacks burn down. We live with rats and they bite the babies,” she said. “We are not animals.”
Ms. Boltney rightly believes her citizenship entitles her to much more than the raw deal she and millions of others have been dealt. Indeed, South Africa’s remarkably progressive Constitution promises all citizens the right of access to housing, health care, sanitation, food and water, and education — and it places the responsibility of ensuring this access on the government.
Unfortunately, the demands of protesters tend to fall on deaf ears among city and provincial officials. The provincial premier, Ms. Zille — who is also the leader of the country’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance — said that the protest was politically motivated. The people she cited as ringleaders of the march have links to the governing African National Congress, from whom her party wrested outright control of the province in the 2009 election. Her administration has also cited the spate of looting that broke out during the protest — perpetrated by a tiny minority of those present — as evidence that the A.N.C. had stirred up residents in order to make the province ungovernable ahead of next year’s general election.
Ms. Zille may be right that some of her opponents are politically motivated. She’s also right when she points out that Cape Town and the Western Cape province score higher than other cities and provinces on assessments of governance and access to basic services.
But you only need to see how the majority of the city’s residents live to realize that this isn’t cause for celebration.
That’s because South Africa’s progress toward realizing the values of social justice and substantive equality embodied in its Constitution has been agonizingly slow. Twenty years ago after this country was reborn after more than three centuries of rampant and institutionalized racial discrimination, it remains mired in economic disparities.
Unfortunately, despite evidence showing that the economy almost tripled in size over the past two decades and inequality worsened, pundits, business leaders and policy makers, including Ms. Zille’s party, continue to insist that growth heals all. It just needs to be made more inclusive, they say.
The solution, they say, lies in deregulating the labor market to get people into jobs — regardless of whether those jobs are secure or allow people to live with basic dignity — and relaxing exchange controls to give South African capital greater global mobility, because it will all trickle down to the poor in the end.
They are wrong. The solutions they propose have been tried elsewhere and have failed. But such arguments are particularly infuriating because they relegate to a side show the goal of remedying the racial and economic inequality created by colonialism and apartheid — those same forces that pushed Ms. Boltney and millions of others to the city’s periphery — out of sight.
Since its rebirth, South Africa’s has had in place the moral and constitutional basis for ending inequality and poverty in the most direct and equitable manner possible: redistributing wealth and income from the rich minority to the poor majority.
But, instead of pressing ahead with this, the country’s leaders succumbed to a false global doctrine that — using the World Economic Forum’s archaic assessments of competitiveness — views the basic human rights protections contained in South Africa’s Constitution and labor regulations as factors that reduce the efficiency of markets. Such egalitarian laws, in this view, prevent the country from competing for foreign direct investment with countries like India and Indonesia, which do not have the same progressive founding ethos of social justice and human dignity.
Rather than acting as champions for the global human rights agenda, South African leaders across the political spectrum keep parroting the false doctrine of growth, deregulation and jobs at whatever cost.
An unseasonal downpour ended the protest in Cape Town. In most South African cultures, rain is considered a blessing. However, after a particularly stormy winter that washed away many homes, the downpour that broke up the march likely reminded the protesters of more peril they face if they do not return to the streets to remind leaders and the public that the present-day structure of South African society is not what many in the anti-apartheid movement bled and died for.
Politicians and policy makers like Ms. Zille and her counterparts can continue to believe things they know are untrue. But, as George Orwell once cautioned, it’s inevitable that false beliefs will eventually bump up against reality — usually on a battlefield. In South Africa, it’s looking increasingly likely it will be in the streets, between well-armed police and citizens desperate for their pleas for a better life to be heard.
T.O. Molefe is a South African journalist and the author of Black Anger and White Obliviousness.