A Closer Look at Race Relations and Poverty in KZN

Although the controversial apartheid rule is officially in the country’s past, what exactly does it mean to be a person of color in the new South Africa?  One would hope that the ANC would have kept its promise to maintain a “united, non-racial, non-sexist, and democratic society”.  This may involve the passage of key reforms that seek to improve the living conditions of and increase the job opportunities for the people of color in South Africa who had been oppressed for many years under the apartheid regime.  While it is certainly reasonable to say that black South Africans are better off than they were 20 years ago, it is clear that the ANC still has much to accomplish before relative economic equality among whites and non-whites becomes a more feasible reality.

Let’s begin with the positives first.  At the Howard College campus at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, I have noticed that the university staff members come from a wide variety of different ethnic backgrounds.  One staff member was telling me how the college truly seeks to develop a diverse directory of individuals of distinct races, especially those with extensive knowledge of indigenous languages.  In regard to the student body, the university has seen the number of admitted black South African, Indian, and Colored students increase to 70% in the past decade.  Many of the local and international students that I spoke with on campus were thrilled to be pursuing advanced degrees in fields such as engineering, law, medicine, technology, and the humanities.  I also met many students and teachers who were visiting the college during the brief winter semester for conferences relating to engineering and technology.  Thus, it appears that non-whites have the power to rise above the socio-economic status they were confined to during the apartheid regime by pursuing advanced degrees.  The university even works with local and international governments to provide partial or full tuition scholarships to select students, particularly in popular professional fields such as engineering.  From this angle, it seems that there is a legitimate hope for South Africans to begin reversing the damages that the apartheid left behind.

While most South Africans do seem to have more opportunities from an academic standpoint, the fact remains that non-whites within the nation are still considerably more economically disadvantaged.  After all, it was President Jacob Zuma himself who addressed his delegates yesterday with the statement, “The structure of the apartheid economy has remained largely intact. “The ownership of the economy is still primarily in the hands of white males, as it has always been.”  I see this heartbreaking reality each day in Durban, as it is rare to travel along a main road without seeing 3-4 street beggars pleading for change or food.  I find that the beggars are different from the ones in the USA.  Rather than simply standing on a street corner with a sign or cup in hand, the South African homeless people voluntarily take on small jobs like cleaning the windshields of cars stopped at traffic lights or watching over parked cars in the hopes of receiving a bit of change.  The beggars are not aggressive, but it is nonetheless difficult to witness the dismal scene of homelessness in South Africa, particularly among non-whites, despite the government’s top priority to eradicate poverty.  For a brief yet comprehensive account on the poverty debate in South Africa, please read this bulletin by AfricaFocus.

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