New Agenda 93

SA After 30 Years — Still a Nation of Two Economies

By Roland Ngam

The ANC is confronted with one tough question: reform or die slowly. ROLAND NGAM delves into the ANC-led attempts at creating a South Africa that works for all and examines why the Freedom Charter’s resolution – “the People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth” – is still an aspiration three decades into Black majority rule. He posits that that many fundamental aspects of the national question, especially land and the economy, have been postponed for too long.


Thirty years into the democratic dispensation, South Africa is still a country of two nations as former President Thabo Mbeki once famously described it. The dream of economic freedom post-apartheid is deferred indefinitely. The challenge of poverty remains, to borrow the famous words of the eminent African American scholar, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, “the problem of the color-line”. The rural countryside also looks and feels cast adrift. It is dominated by pervasive apartheid geography with a preponderance of informal settlements.

Municipalities are struggling under the yoke of corruption and poor service delivery and because municipalities are struggling, hospitals, public transport, schools and security are struggling. A key priority of the national question, i.e. the long-promised land reform and a demand of the 1955 Congress of the People is yet to be delivered. This is fuelling a sense of betrayal among Blacks and it has become the cudgel that political parties, notably the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and rabble rousers use to beat the ANC with at every opportunity. Some anxious and sometimes mischievous voices have started saying openly that things were better for Blacks in the apartheid era.

A country of two nations

In his seminal ‘two nations’ speech, sometimes referred to as the ‘two economies’ speech, delivered to the National Assembly on 29 May 1998 on the theme reconciliation and nation building, former President Mbeki described the chasm that existed between White and Black South Africans in the ‘90s as follows:

We therefore make bold to say that South Africa is a country of two nations. One of these nations is white, relatively prosperous, regardless of gender or geographic dispersal. It has ready access to a developed economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure. This enables it to argue that, except for the persistence of gender discrimination against women, all members of this nation have the possibility to exercise their right to equal opportunity, the development opportunities to which the Constitution of ‘93 committed our country. The second and larger nation of South Africa is black and poor, with the worst affected being women in the rural areas, the black rural population in general and the disabled. This nation lives under conditions of grossly underdeveloped economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure. It has virtually no possibility to exercise what in reality amounts to a theoretical right to equal opportunity, with that right being equal within this black nation only to the extent that it is equally incapable of realisation.

This reality of two nations, underwritten by the perpetuation of the racial, gender and spatial disparities born of a very long period of colonial and apartheid white minority domination, constitutes the material base which reinforces the notion that, indeed, we are not one nation, but two nations. And neither are we becoming one nation. Consequently, also, the objective of national reconciliation is not being realised. It follows as well that the longer this situation persists, in spite of the gift of hope delivered to the people by the birth of democracy, the more entrenched will be the conviction that the concept of nation-building is a mere mirage and that no basis exists, or will ever exist, to enable national reconciliation to take place.

The challenge for the ANC has always been to ensure that this two nations paradigm is dismantled and replaced with a fairer model that shares the country’s wealth more equally among all citizens. Former president Mbeki indicated in his speech that bridging the gap would take time. Repairing a broken country like South Africa required an almost faultless run of wins by the government, decade after decade.

South Africa under the ANC: The good

By any standards, some of the ANC’s achievements are unprecedented in Africa, both in the scope and scale of the changes as well as the time frame in which they were realised. South Africa’s biggest achievement under Black majority rule of course is a new social contract. The national project is born of the December 1996 Constitution and is based on the values of human dignity, non-racialism and non-sexism, supremacy of the Constitution, the rule of law and universal adult suffrage governed by a national common voters’ roll, regular elections and a multi-party system of democratic government. The Constitution further guarantees a right to a healthy, unharmed planet and equal enjoyment of the country’s rivers, lakes, forests, veld and parks.

Since the beginning of the democratic era following the historic elections of 26 and 29 April 1994, South Africa has had five presidents: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma and Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa. None of them has tried to modify the Constitution in order to remain in power indefinitely, as is often the case in many African countries. The previous national Parliament had 46% women representation, one of the few countries in the world to score that high on this matrix. Furthermore, South Africa has a truly decentralised system of government with three tiers: national, provincial and local. More recently, the national government has been allocated 48.6% of nationally raised funds, with 41.4% going to provincial governments and 10% going to local government.

With the consolidation of the social contract, the ANC government has overseen major advances over the past three decades. When the ANC came to power, access to potable water for Black families was almost non-existent. Today, it stands at over 88%, although recent episodes of drought and corruption mean that the taps remain dry for  days at a time in some parts of the country. The electricity penetration rate in Black communities was at 36% in 1994. Today it has reached 94%. Bantu education has been replaced by an education system that seeks to equip young Black learners with the skills needed to succeed in today’s society. More Black students are going to university than ever before thanks to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) that offers finance to the majority of learners who complete their secondary education every year. At least 4.7 million Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) houses have been built for the poor and President Cyril Ramaphosa recently announced that another 4,188 would be constructed in the Northern Cape. South Africa has the tenth most extensive paved road network in the world.

South Africa is Africa’s number one economy with a large manufacturing and services base. It is among the world’s top exporters of wine and fruit. It is Africa’s biggest producer of energy in general (with nominal capacity of 52,000MW) and green energy in particular on the continent (6,200MW owned by Eskom and Independent Power Producers and another 6,000MW owned by homeowners). With abundant electricity and technical know-how, the country has become a major manufacturer of automobiles, steel, heavy machinery and consumer goods. It was the first African country to build a high-speed rail network, the Gautrain, which Thabo Mbeki identified as key to hosting the FIFA 2010 World Cup.

Many parts of urban South Africa are no different from metropolises in the Global North and in fact, if you were to go from Sandton, Johannesburg, to London or Los Angeles, the first obvious change that you would pick up would probably be the wall sockets rather than the level of infrastructure. In those areas, virtually everything else, such as streets, restaurants, businesses, billboards and apartment complexes, would be on similar levels of modernity. The internet is great, the streets are of very good quality, the houses are even better than in many parts of the Global North, the lawns are immaculate, the schools offer world-class education and for young people, the sky is the limit in terms of what they can achieve. In fact, in certain respects, one can say that South Africa is more advanced than some countries in the Global North.

Black South Africans now represent the biggest share of the middle class, the biggest share of graduates from universities, the overwhelming majority of the public sector’s 1.2 million workers, the majority of the private sector’s 14.3 million staff, and the overwhelming majority of homeowners. Unfortunately, too much wealth ends in urban areas. Visiting the rural parts of the country is like travelling to a different place.

The bad: Still a significant wealth gap

The gains of the democratic era drop significantly as one moves out of the cities in the direction of the countryside. It is common to see groups of strong, able-bodied young people standing around, waiting for a piece job. Thabo Mbeki’s nation of two economies is now decidedly also urban versus rural although one must also say that the Black middle class earns much less than the White middle class. Peri-urban areas are still dominated by overcrowded townships where most working class people live. The dormitory towns of apartheid-era labour have been upgraded somewhat. They now have neat rows of formal housing. However, these are slowly being surrounded and swallowed up by the shacks of an ever-growing number of people who cannot afford anything else. Think Alexandra, the dormitory shantytown for Sandton, South Africa’s financial centre. Think Soshanguve, the cheap labour reservoir for Pretoria. Think Khayelitsha, from where poor children can see the shiny buildings and immaculate lawns of gated communities in the Cape Town city centre. Every metropolitan area still depends on a majority Black township for cheap labour three decades into Black majority rule.

South Africa is officially the most unequal country in the world with a Gini coefficient of 63. When we delve down into granular detail, the land Gini coefficient of Limpopo province is 0.93%, the highest in the country and among the highest in the world (Redders, 2021). Speaking at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2022, Thomas Picketty said that the top 10% of South Africans own more wealth than 85% of the country’s households. According to the World Inequality Lab, the 3,500 richest South Africans own more wealth than the bottom 32 million people combined. Income inequality per capita is twice as high in so-called rural provinces like Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Eastern Cape, North West and Northern Cape. According to Statistics South Africa, there are over eight million unemployed people in the country, of which 6.1 million are long-term unemployed (StatsSA, 2023). In terms of where the poor live, the data shows that the majority are based in Mpumalanga, Limpopo, North West and Eastern Cape where the average unemployment rate is 40%. The bulk of South Africa’s economic activity is concentrated in Gauteng (33%), KwaZulu-Natal (15%) and the Western Cape (14%).

Statistics South Africa’s 2021 General Household Survey shows that grants are the second most important source of income (51%) for households after salaries (59,4%). The study adds that a larger percentage of households receive grants compared to salaries as a source of income in Free State (60,0% versus 53,2%), Eastern Cape (63,7% versus 46,2%), Limpopo (65,7% versus 49,7%) and Mpumalanga (66,2% versus 50,9%). Grants are the main source of income for households in Eastern Cape (42,0%) and Limpopo (35,2%) (StatsSA, 2021). At least 85% of South Africans farm the land to secure an extra source of food while a further 4% are entirely dependent on agriculture for all their food (StatsSA, 2021: 54). It is only in Gauteng and Western Cape where a majority of the people engaged in agriculture do so as a leisure activity.

A recent study by Amnesty International revealed that the majority of students in rural provinces aged nine cannot read for meaning. There are many teachers working in schools where learners’ first language is not the language of instruction. Apartheid geography is still a strong driver of success and the top 200 schools have better results than the next 6,600 schools below them. The Amnesty International report quotes government data for 2018 which show that out of 23,471 public schools, 19% had only illegal pit latrines for sanitation (37 schools had no sanitation facilities at all); 86% had no laboratory; 77% had no library; 72% had no internet access; 42% had no sports facilities; 239 schools had no electricity; 56% had a shortage of physical infrastructure and 70% reported a shortage of library materials compared to an Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development (OECD) average of 16%.

In some areas, there is no potable water or electricity. Children lack proper libraries, playgrounds and quality laboratories with the same equipment and consumables that students have in urban areas. Often they live in areas where the only business is a mine or a large-scale commercial farm or maybe a lodge. There is not much else happening. Grandparents often use their grants to feed their grandchildren and pay their school fees. For such families, education is the only way to get out of poverty. Like President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his letter to the nation, From the Desk of the President of 22 January 2024, “in 2023, matriculants who receive some form of social grant together achieved more than 160,000 distinctions, and more than 200,000 qualified for university entrance … Learners from no-fee paying schools constituted more than 65% of the total bachelor passes obtained.” That says a lot.

The success of some learners should not mask the challenges that many young people, especially girls, face in rural areas. In 2016, South Africa recorded about 114,000 teenage pregnancies. This figure increased by almost 50% between 2017 and 2021 (Barron et al., 2022). According to Statistics South Africa, (2022) a total of 129,223 births were delivered by adolescents in a public health facility in 2021/22. Most of these births occurred in rural provinces where young girls are often lured by the money that they get from the so-called AmaBlessers (sugar daddies). Many of these young people live either in single- parent households where the breadwinner is away at work all day or in the care of their grandparents while their parents work in the city. Needless to say, AmaBlessers are also responsible for a high proportion of HIV/AIDS cases.

The land question: Still a source of anger and division

The land question remains unresolved and as long as things stay this way, there is always going to be significant tension between White and Black South Africans. For many people land represents a lodestar, an anchor, a homeland where their ancestors are buried and where they constitute themselves into a strong unit or leverage from which they project outwards to conquer the world or to which they go back to rest and rebuild their strength. Land is therefore more than just an asset. It represents identity. Importantly, in the case of South Africa it is an unofficial indicator of progress made towards correcting the wrongs of the apartheid era. In 1994, the ANC promised to transfer 30% of 87 million hectares of fertile land to Blacks by 2000, but by 2019, only ten million hectares had changed hands. To achieve this ambition, they launched a series of programmes, including the Settlement and Land Acquisition Grant (launched in 1995), the Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development (launched in 2001) and the Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy (launched in 2006). Concurrently with these programmes, legislation (the Extension of Security of Tenure Act 62 of 1997, the Prevention of Illegal Occupation of Land Act of 1998, etc.) and court processes have helped to advance the restitution and tenure reform agenda.

An undercapitalised programme, the willing buyer–willing seller approach, means that land reform has advanced at a snail’s pace. Too often the government has let the private sector dictate debates about land. Whenever there has been an indication of the ANC deviating from willing buyer–willing seller, the biggest farmers’ union in the country, Agriculture South Africa (Agri-SA), mounts media campaigns about discrimination and possible hunger and starvation in South Africa. Similarly, pressure groups like AfriForum kick up a fuss and argue that lazy Blacks want everything for free. They go to major media houses in the Global North such as Fox News and say that there is an ongoing genocide against White South Africans.

Another major reason for the slowness of land reform is that the South African government focuses too much on replacing White commercial farmers with a similar number of Black ones. In other words, every time a farm was bought from a White farmer, every effort was made to get the Black beneficiary to transform the plot into a thriving farm, even when the beneficiary was someone who had never managed a large- scale commercial farm before. Large-scale commercial farms are typically massive, about 1,640 hectares on average. Land reform is typically based on transferring plots of exact dimensions from Whites to Blacks. When one considers that in 1994 there were only 120,000 White commercial farmers, it means that hundreds of thousands of Blacks are going to remain disappointed for a very long time if subdivision of farm land does not become a key land reform strategy.

Agri-SA’s arguments are also dated. Mechanisation and consolidation has shrunk the number of commercial farmers to just over 37,000. That leaves significant manoeuvre room for the government to launch ambitious reform projects. As far as restitution is concerned, even when Blacks can prove that they were evicted from a plot for which they had a freehold title, litigation often takes years. In certain cases, some of these cases can go on for decades. Three dimensions of the national question are making the need for decisive action on the land question all the more urgent. The first one is poverty. Recent data shows that half the country cannot afford to buy food on a regular basis. Thriving farms are often targeted by gangs because they represent the only significant business activity in a large radius. Owners of large estates do not need to till their land to make it productive. Popular hiking trails can make up to R300,000 per weekend. Opportunistic crimes of this nature are only going to grow if people cannot feed themselves.

The second dimension is the climate crisis. South Africa is a water-stressed country. Paradoxically, it is also the 12th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world (largely due to its coal power fleet) and the biggest exporter of agriculture commodities on the African continent. The large-scale commercial farms that dominate South African agriculture use up more than 60% of the country’s available water. They tend to employ many workers who are often furloughed when there is a drought. This was the case in the 2010s when a multi-year drought caused at least 14,000 people to lose their jobs. Many of the furloughed workers ended up in informal settlements in urban areas.

The third is a troubling deterioration of race relations. Farm murders have become a hot topic in the country because the victims are often White. This has led to some White political parties and pressure groups like AfriForum claiming that there is a genocide against White farmers, although Blacks are still overwhelmingly the victims of an overwhelming majority of violent murders. Attacks perpetrated against Whites are more publicised because they represent a minority. Rabble rousers use land-related talking points to drive a wedge between the races and South Africa to the brink. We saw this following the very brutal murder of young farm manager Brendin Horner in 2020 when skirmishes between Blacks and Whites almost resulted in a shootout on the streets of the sleepy town of Senekal in the eastern Free State. Similar episodes played out again in the town of Piet Retief in Mpumalanga province in late April 2021 when four white farmers appeared in the magistrate’s court following the murder of two job seekers.

Bridging the gap: Solving South Africa’s rural poverty challenge

What should be the ANC’s agenda going forward? The single most important priority is fixing South Africa’s municipalities and making them fit for purpose. The budgets of municipalities have become the kitty of tenderpreneurs, rent seekers and never-retire ANC cadre who live at taxpayers’ expense. There is little doubt that the hottest target of hired assassins is municipal councillors. South Africa has three tiers of government, i.e. the national, provincial and local. The national government is responsible for only 48% of the budget. The rest of it goes to provincial and local government.The problem with decentralisation typically occurs at provincial and local levels where there is a long history of corruption and incompetence. The 2021/22 government financial audit revealed that only 38 out of 257 municipalities and only two out of the eight metros produced clean audits. The State of Local Government Report for the same period indicated that 64 out of 257 municipalities across South Africa were dysfunctional. Poor leadership generates an average of 300 service delivery protests every year.

If the municipalities are fixed, that can open the way to the second most important fix. This is universal basic infrastructure. South Africa’s two nations problem persists in great part because the rural areas lack the fit for purpose leverage that people in great cities have in abundance. This is universal basic infrastructure in the form of bandwidth, schools, mobile connectivity, water, electricity, healthcare, civil status register, land, quality affordable housing, entertainment, public spaces and security. These assets are a necessary step to producing the quality of citizenry and industry that the rural areas require to take off. Failure to provide these services means that over three decades into the democratic era, apartheid geography and inherited redlining policies continue to exist. The government must invest large amounts of money to ensure that Black rural citizens get the quality education and support that they need not just to seek jobs elsewhere, but to live and transform their communities.

At the same time, the government should explore the possibility of doubling the grants that are offered to Blacks. There is an ongoing debate about introducing a Universal Basic Income Grant in South Africa. While the contours of that debate are still being explored, why not start by doubling grants? Doubling grants would significantly increase the amount of money that goes into feeding and educating Black children. It would also help people to get better infrastructure to enable them to live better lives.

At least 3.2 million South Africans in the rural provinces practice some form of agriculture to supplement their food, but they often lack land to do more. That is why the land reform process should be seen as not simply providing land for commercial purposes. For example a key intervention should be limiting land plots to between two and ten hectares, and handing them over quickly to Black beneficiaries, together with some form of capital or implements to put the land to use. Land and start-up capital are key. Having very carefully planned technical training and transfer backed by significant capitalisation will take forever to accomplish. Beneficiaries gain from starting with what they have and jumping in the deep end -– if they have something to start with. This is what Zimbabwe’s small-scale tobacco farmers did during the country’s Fast Track Land Reform Programme (FTLRP) in the early 2000s.

Education needs to improve significantly. South Africa’s universities often complain that the secondary cycle is producing too many matriculants who cannot keep up with the requirements of tertiary education. This creates a logjam of students who spend too much time repeating courses, as former Statistician General Pali Lehotla once argued during the Fees Must Fall campaign. While he was still in office, Lehotla oversaw an audit that uncovered over 400,000 students who were trapped in the university system, but who still needed National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funds to continue their studies. He told Parliament: “The truth of the matter is that we have (close to) a million students, so we’re spending money on students who do not succeed, who do not finish … We have 300,000 people in the (higher education) system who should not be there, who are not succeeding to finish … There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that they don’t have the money to take them through their studies and therefore they can’t go through.”

Two new universities were recently built, Sol Plaatjie University in Kimberley and the University of Mpumalanga. Two more are planned for Hammanskraal and Ekurhuleni. Although there is a strong desire amongst Blacks to get a university education, a necessary route to white-collar jobs, the South African economy has shown that the number of openings is narrowing every year. In contrast, there is a massive shortage of artisan skills: electricians, plumbers, builders, welders, IT technicians, web developers, chefs, etc. This reflects a wider problem in Africa where universities were presented early on as the centres where the country’s white-collar elite would be trained. As economies grew and urbanisation picked up pace, little was done to change this paradigm.

Finally, incubation centres need to be set up in rural areas where Blacks are given the opportunity to practice their knowledge. These incubation centres should be in all growing areas of the South African economy: green energy, IT, agriculture, tourism, etc. By creating hundreds of solar and windmill incubation centres around South Africa, for example, the government can help Blacks bridge the emerging gap in this key industry. The fact that just three years into South Africa’s renewable energy boom, Whites own the overwhelming majority of renewable capacity says everything. It is also a sign that if serious interventions are not implemented, the same results are going to keep emerging.

Elsewhere, young Black farmers can also be given the resources needed to run small farms, transport logistics and small markets and supermarkets that they connect to. Efforts must also be made to link governments’ and municipalities’ purchasing power to new companies started on such incubation sites. Some preferential supply chains have emerged in recent years. However, most of them are based in urban areas. Reaching out to rural areas helps spread the wealth.


Thabo Mbeki quoted the American poet Langston Hughes to Parliament on several occasions, specifically his poem “Harlem”:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore – And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over – like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?

The dream of power to the people and equal opportunity for all has not really materialised in South Africa. It is festering in some instances and in others it stinks, like Langston Hughes’ poem says. Too many people have waited too long to share in the country’s wealth. After many years of trickle-down economics, it is time to develop a concerted effort that is surgically targeted at rural areas and backed by money and high-level supervision. If this is not done, the gulf between Black and White South Africa shall continue to widen. The July 2021 riots followed specific patterns. The stores that were looted first and most often were supermarkets. The rioters did not touch bookstores. This is a clear indication that people are crying out for solutions that can help them feed themselves and their families. The risk of not doing this, as Langston Hughes points out, and as Thabo Mbeki reminded the South African Parliament, is that the dream explodes.


Amnesty International. 2020. Broken and Unequal; the State of Education in South Africa. London: Amnesty International Ltd. Available at FINALBrokenAndUnequal_FULLREPORTredu_compressed.pdf

Barron, P., Subedar, H., Letsoko, M., Makua, M. & Pillay, Y. 2022. Teenage births and pregnancies in South Africa, 2017-2021 – a reflection of a troubled country: Analysis of public sector data, The South African Medical Journal, Vol. 112, No. 4, pp. 252 – 258.

Mbeki, T. 1998. The Two Nations. Speech delivered to Parliament. 1998. Available at https://www.anc1912. (accessed on 2 January 2024).

Mtyala, Q. 2016. Tertiary system ‘constipated’ with too many students, Cape Argus, 26 October. Available at (accessed on 10 January 2024).

Ramaphosa, C. 2024. Education is our most powerful weapon against poverty. Available at https://www. (accessed 22 January 2024).

Redders, H. 2021. Regional inequality and rural dependency in South Africa. UN University SA-TIED Programme. Available at chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://sa-tied-archive.

StatsSA. 2022. General Household Survey, 2021. Pretoria: StatsSA.

StatsSA. 2022b. Profiling health challenges faced by adolescents (10-19 years) in South Africa. Pretoria: StatsSA. StatsSA. 2023. Quarterly Labour Force Survey. Pretoria: StatsSA

Dr Roland Ngam is programme manager for climate justice and socioecological transformation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Southern Africa, where he coordinates the climate blog, ClimateJusticeCentral. Before that, he was a postdoctoral research fellow in the Emancipatory Futures Studies Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *