Racism for the Poor, Capitalism for the Rich

by Letchimi Devi

A community, Zulu ethnic were rich with lucrative trade of gold, copper and ivory. In the 1600s they were viciously displaced and thrust into forced labour by the Dutch settlers. 150 years later, another settler, the British, occupied their land. The Zulu community is gradually evicted from their own land and made into tenants and wage labourers. Diamond discovery further enriched the land and the colonizer. Migrant workers settlement grew. Well, that’s just a glimpse of South Africa’s history that I visited for the first time, in May 2019. Since 1940s, the people of South Africa suffered under white domination. They were segregated by race and discriminated against with 148 apartheid laws!


This is the country that won independence, most recently, in 1994. 25 years since the fall of apartheid regime, today, South Africa is the richest country in African continent with 55 million populations. South Africa’s constitution, signed in 1996, is one of the world’s great liberal documents. It enshrines the basic rights of all South Africans to equality before the law, regardless of race, gender or sexuality.

Having the opportunity to visit Johannesburg and Soweto, which is the township of Nelson Mandela, the country’s first democratically elected president, is a memorable event. The chance to hold Mr. Nelson Mandela or Madiba’s Noble Prize (1993) is the most Zen experience! We met many great people, who sacrificed and fought against apartheid as well as current leaders who are doing great job to achieve social justice. All thanks goes to Equity Initiative, for giving us the opportunity to learn and get inspired.

Apartheid Museum

02 - ap museum.jpgJohannesburg is the biggest city and capital of Gauteng province. Most foreign born migrants live in Gauteng. Johannesburg was established in 1880s when gold was discovered. Apartheid Museum is located in this city. The museum issued tickets for entrance and mine was NIE-BLANKES NON-WHITES. It was randomly classified to give us a sense of life under apartheid. End of the two hour visit, I felt puzzled because the oppressed population are larger in quantity yet they are easily controlled by the minority. I was also amazed with the people’s courage, resilience and solidarity, in fighting the injustice, continuously for 5 decades. The resistance was mobilized at many levels, the women, trade unions, youths, doctors, political organisations and worldwide anti-apartheid movement. They won but it left a bitter taste.

Health Care

03.jpgThe health care system in South Africa is quite similar to Malaysia, mix of public and private but majority use public health care which is underfunded with fewer doctors. For example, in Guateng, people to doctor ratio is 4024:1.There are 3 category of payment in public hospitals – full paying patient, partial subsidy or fully subsidised. It depends on their income level and citizenship status. We visited Chiawelo in Soweto District, an urban poor community and their Community Orientated Primary Care. It’s a local community initiative, started in 2013. One of the community health workers, Mr. Pongalani, accompanied us to visit a family. Along the way, we chatted with him and found out that most people are working in the informal economy, unemployment is high, and most living in Chiawelo is renting houses, low education level, largely elder population and migrants. They have no land for agriculture. Many youths were loitering around. Some were drunk and few of them attempted to sell us alcohol. They were quite aggressive. Also noted, there aren’t any development agencies providing support for the community, considering the poverty level.


The family we visited– a household of 3 single mothers, with their elderly father. Each of them has 3 children. Only one of the single mothers was working. One person was not working due to poor health while the other still looking for job. Obesity, poor diet is part of their health concerns. They have government welfare support. Their children are attending school. They have to pay school fees (contribution), one a year, about 250rand. The family said that it’s quite common to have female headed households. We were reluctant to ask where the men are but we understand the poverty situation has led to family breakdown and further crippled with crime and violence including domestic violence. The Community Health Workers role is highly valued by the family.

Land Reform

Much talked about issue in the 2019 general election. The Atlantic Daily reported (3 May 2019), “According to a 2017 land audit by the South African government, 72 percent of the country’s arable land remains in the hands of whites, who account for fewer than 10 percent of the total population. Since the ruling African National Congress came to power in 1994, under the stewardship of Nelson Mandela, one of its central undertakings has been to relieve this disparity. But to date, the spotty efficacy of the ANC’s land-restitution efforts has seen barely a quarter of such land restored to black farmers.

Economic Policy

The visit has prompted me to think. Is the current situation of poverty and helplessness, a result of apartheid, poor policies post apartheid or people are just lazy to work? I found the interaction with Prof. David Sanders on this topic, made sense. He was very critical of neo-liberal policies. The government failed to bring opportunities to the bottom.
When the democratically elected government took over from the white apartheid regime in 1994, Black Empowerment Economic Policy (BEE) was introduced to address the inequalities by giving the citizens (African, Coloured and Indians), economic privileges, already available to Whites. The policy is meant to increase control ownership and management of properties by black people in an equitable and sustainable manner in all sectors of employment and governments. The affirmative action is quite similar to Malaysia’s New Economic Policy. Did BEE succeed?

A study by Elvin Shavaa on Black Economic Empowerment in South Africa: Challenges and Prospects (2017):

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In 1996, Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR) was introduced. It targeted economic growth, job creation, domestic savings/investment, foreign direct investment and others. Was it successful?

Judith Streak Gomersall from University of Adelaide in her research paper, “Did Gear fail or move South Africa forward in development?” said,

“Gear has improved the private investment climate and produced better resource and institutional conditions for government to play a more active role in pushing future development. Whichever way it is argued, a key point that emerges is that development prospects will remain gloomy if the government reverts back to the strategy of relying largely on the private sector to reduce poverty, and fails to do more itself via effective income support programmes for the poor.”

Lasting inequities?

BBC correspondent reported in 2018 that South Africa is one of the most unequal countries on the planet – the legacy of apartheid is still evident.
The unemployment rate is worse than one in four. The degree of inequality is extraordinary. A measure that’s often used is the Gini coefficient, which ranges theoretically between zero for complete equality and 100 where all the income goes to a single person. In the most equal countries, Nordic and some other European countries, the figure is in the mid to high 20s, for US around 40. For South Africa it’s more than 60.

Journey from Developing Country to Developed Country

Our journey continued from South Africa, the developing country to United States (US), a developed country. There are some similarities, both countries practiced racial segregation and slavery: in South Africa from 1940s-1990s and in US from 1840s to 1960s. I believe as developed country, US citizens are much wealthier with better opportunity, better health, and better education. Nevertheless, the learning experience shows otherwise.

Homelessness in Harvard Square

Visiting Harvard University in USA, is another first experience.


Harvard was great with its history and reputation. I felt weird to see homeless people, both young and old, sleeping on the benches in the cold. Some were begging. Not sure if they are citizens, migrants or students of Harvard. The university is prestigious and rich one, yet they are not able to help the poor who are just ‘beside them’?

Jonathan L. Katzman ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, in his article (12/2/2109), Ending Unsheltered Homelessness in Harvard Square, shared his opinion:

“Harvard is partly responsible for the rising rent prices plaguing Cambridge. Since the leading cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing, the University is partially at fault for the scale of homelessness in Cambridge and, as a result, should help mitigate its effects. The University is both one of the largest landowners in all of the Boston area and has the largest endowment of any university with $39.2 billion; it has adequate resources to open up more shelters and hire staff if there are not enough volunteers. At the very least, it can contribute financial support to existing shelters. Currently, both shelters rely on grants and donations, and they receive no funding from the University itself.”

08.jpgWe visited the Codman Square in Boston. Interesting place, people are louder and more expressive. I saw two people shouting in the middle of the road, a woman talking loud on her mobile phone while cursing. I also noted, few men in haggard clothing waiting outside restaurant for some offerings/begging. Obviously there is poverty. The neighbourhood is largely African Americans, Caribbean Americans, Asian Americans and Whites. We visited Codman Academy in the area, one of the best High Schools. Their curriculum emphasises more on arts and social justice.

Why the socio-economic situation of the African Americans in Boston, USA is similar to the people in South Africa?

Racial Segregation

09a.png09The text was extracted from Linde Riphagen’s article, Marginalization of African-Americans in the social sphere of US society. She provides analysis about the criminal justice system, education and housing in US Society. “About 45% of the prison population are African-Americans. The system that has been established and the way it is maintained ensure that a large percentage of the African-Americans likely to form a threat to society, in terms of resistance and perceived danger, are regulated through locking them up in prisons.”

Her article also stated that schools are more segregated than 30 years ago, with more than 80% of African-American schools facing concentrated levels of poverty (Orfield 1997: 5). When understanding the US system of school funding depending on the economic prosperity of the district, it is sufficient to say that African-American schools are not only segregated but continue to be highly unequal. It is therefore not surprising that with limited resources and poor quality teaching, the students are performing in general below standards.

Harvard Business Review published (October 2017) a study on Hiring Discriminations against Black Americans hasn’t declined in 25 years.

Residential Segregation

In a research article written by Keanga-Yamahtta Taylor, published in The Guardian (24 Jan 2019), residential segregation and racism in housing market was explained.

Across the country, African Americans are being denied mortgages at rates dramatically higher than their white peers. In Philadelphia, African Americans are almost three times more likely to be rejected for home loans than white people. As a result, the gap between black homeownership (44%) and white homeownership (69%) is enormous. And the rising costs of rent weigh heaviest on African Americans, who suffer from lower wages. Over the last year, rents have risen across the United States by 4% to an average of $1,209 for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,442 for a two-bedroom apartment.

In some cities, such as San Francisco, Boston, New York and Chicago, it is nearly impossible to find safe and sound apartments for these prices. As the cost of rent climbs above income, ordinary people face eviction, displacement and homelessness. In Philadelphia, hundreds of apartments have been legally designated as “unfit for human habitation” and yet landlords, often illegally, collect tens of thousands of dollars in rent on these dwellings. According to a Harvard study, between 2010 and 2017 prices “in poor urban neighbourhoods rose 50% faster than in rich neighbourhoods”. The much discussed wealth disparity between African American and white families are deeply rooted in black marginalization within the housing market.

Health Equity

12.pngThe National Academic Press, in their publication Communities in Action: Pathways to Health Equity (2017) explored the underlying conditions and root causes contributing to health inequities in United States. It says, racial or ethnic groups, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability status, socioeconomic status, and geographic location shape an individual’s ability to achieve optimal health (Healthy People 2020, 2016). Race and ethnicity are extremely salient factors when examining health inequity (Bell and Lee, 2011; Smedley et al., 2008; Williams et al., 2010).

Robert Manduca of Harvard University in an article published by the Washington Centre for Equitable Growth (Aug 2018) says efforts to reduce discrimination, equalize access to education, ensure equal treatment by the legal system, and otherwise end racial stratification should continue since they seem to be making real, if slow, progress. But these policies should be paired with broader economic policies to end wage stagnation for Americans of all races and, in so doing, reduce the gaps between racial groups.

The Bumiputera of South Africa

13.jpgComing back to Malaysia, it’s not only Indians being marginalised, other minority communities as well including the indigenous people/Orang Asli. As in like South Africa, although the ruling party members are from the same ethnic as the majority population (called Bumiputera or prince of the land); they still failed to eradicate poverty among Bumiputera. Why should there be rich and poor Bumiputera if the government is for Bumiputera?

Is this not adequate proof that racism is just a tool to break and rule the people and keep them poor and dormant while the rich will continue to do business for profit with government machinery? And the government is basically, servant of the big businesses; hence laws and policies are to protect business interest. The growing inequality as a result of market based economy is no longer justifiable. The ruling parties that have been protecting business all these while are now changing their narrative. US Democrats are one good example. White rule or Black rule, the outcome seems same. Reminds me of China’s Deng quotation – it doesn’t matter if it is white cat or the black cat, as long as it catches the rat.

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