“We never dismantled apartheid,” said Ayabonga Cawe, a former economist for Oxfam, the international anti-poverty organization, and now the host of a radio show that explores national affairs. “The patterns of enrichment and impoverishment are still the same.”

Share story

CROSSROADS, South Africa — The end of apartheid was supposed to be a beginning.

Judith Sikade envisioned escaping the townships, where the government had forced black people to live. She aimed to find work in Cape Town, trading her shack for a home with modern conveniences.

More than two decades later, Sikade, 69, lives on the garbage-strewn dirt of Crossroads township, where thousands of black families have used splintered boards and metal sheets to construct airless hovels for lack of anywhere else to live.

“I’ve gone from a shack to a shack,” Sikade says. “I’m fighting for everything I have. You still are living in apartheid.”

In the history of civil rights, South Africa lays claim to a momentous achievement — the demolition of apartheid and the construction of a democracy. But for black South Africans, who account for three-fourths of this nation of roughly 55 million people, political liberation has yet to translate into material gains.

Apartheid has essentially persisted in economic form.

This reality is palpable as turmoil now seizes South Africa. Enraged protesters demand the ouster of President Jacob Zuma over disclosures of corruption so high-level that it is often described as state capture, with private interests having effectively purchased the power to divert state resources in their direction. The economy keels in recession, worsening an official unemployment rate reaching nearly 28 percent.

Underlying the anger are deep-seated disparities in wealth. In the aftermath of apartheid, the government left land and other assets largely in the hands of a predominantly white elite. The government’s resistance to large-scale land transfers reflected its reluctance to rattle international investors.

Today, millions of black South Africans are chronically short of capital needed to start businesses. Less than half of the working-age population is officially employed.

The governing party, the African National Congress, built empires of new housing for black South Africans, but concentrated it in the townships, reinforcing the geographic strictures of apartheid. Large swaths of the black population remain hunkered down in squalor, on land they do not legally own. Those with jobs often endure commutes of an hour or more on private minibuses that extract outsize slices of their paychecks.

“We never dismantled apartheid,” said Ayabonga Cawe, a former economist for Oxfam, the international anti-poverty organization, and now the host of a radio show that explores national affairs. “The patterns of enrichment and impoverishment are still the same.”

South Africa began the post-apartheid era facing challenges as formidable as those confronted by the Soviet Union after communism. It had to re-engineer an economy dominated by mining and expand into modern pursuits like tourism and agriculture, while overcoming a legacy of colonial exploitation, racial oppression and global isolation — the results of decades of international sanctions.

“It’s a very deep structural problem,” said Ian Goldin, who served as a senior economic adviser to Nelson Mandela, and is now a professor of globalization at the University of Oxford in Britain. “The Russians had capitalism before the Soviet Union. Africans lost their rights 300 years ago. It’s a much longer period of subjugation.”

Even so, from 1998-2008, the economy expanded by roughly 3.5 percent a year, doubling the size of the black middle class. The government built millions of homes, extended the reach of clean water and electricity, and handed out cash grants to millions of poor people.

But the global financial crisis of 2008 hit South Africa, destroying demand for the mineral deposits at the center of its economy. It wiped out half of the roughly 2 million new jobs that had been created in the previous four years.

No land, no collateral

Growing up in a township near Durban, on South Africa’s east coast, Siyabonga Mzulwini placed his faith in the transformative powers of education.

During apartheid, black education had been a consignment to permanent poverty. The Bantu educational system had been set up to churn out vast numbers of low-skilled, low-wage black workers to feed into mining operations.

But Mzulwini, 28, was intent on gaining marketable skills. Four years ago, he graduated from a technical university with a diploma in business management.

His flurry of job applications produced no response. So he and three partners registered their own company, hoping to get a crack at government contracts reserved for black-owned companies.

They contemplated building a carwash. But when they applied for loans, the banks turned them away. They had no collateral.

They were in crowded company. Ten percent of all South Africans — the majority white — owns more than 90 percent of national wealth, according to a 2016 research paper by Anna Orthofer, a graduate student at Stellenbosch University. Some 80 percent of the population — overwhelmingly black — owns nothing at all.

“Property rights are not at all clearly defined in black communities,” said Dieter von Fintel, an economist at Stellenbosch University. “Collateral is very difficult to secure.”

This was both the product of colonialism, and the negotiated price of ending apartheid absent civil war. To gain the National Party’s assent to elections, the ANC forswore major transfers of land from white to black control.

“The ANC’s primary objective was inclusion into the existing system,” said Moeletsi Mbeki, deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs and a brother of former South African President Thabo Mbeki. “They wanted themselves to be part of the capitalist economy.”

Once in power, ANC officials were loath to pursue policies that might be considered radical by international investors, lest it damage South Africa’s credit rating.

The new government confronted huge budget deficits along with extraordinary demands for housing and electricity. Building required loans from global investors. Land transfers risked spooking markets, jeopardizing the government’s plans.

“We all would have liked to do it differently,” says Alec Erwin, who served as deputy finance minister in the Mandela government. “Whether we could have done it differently is another question.”

The government satisfied international markets and set the townships buzzing with construction. Yet this approach came at a cost, one Mzulwini and his partners were effectively bearing.

As they started their business, they were operating with the same assets their families had owned during apartheid — nothing.

So Mzulwini and his partners eyed another target — contracts to help build government-furnished houses within the township. They approached a construction company to seek a role as a subcontractor.

Rebuffed again, Mzulwini and his partners linked up with a federation of businesses operating under the name Delangokubonya Sa — Zulu for “We’ll Believe It When We See It.” The group is a platform for would-be black entrepreneurs frustrated by the ANC machine.

Federation brethren descended on the township construction site and threatened to shake the scaffolding if workers did not cease. The disruption gained Mzulwini a spot in a government program training people for careers as bricklayers.

The following year, Mzulwini and his partners secured three contracts to do brick work, netting profits of 70,000 rand, about $5,150.

“Being radical and forceful is what has given me hope,” Mzulwini said.

He is less optimistic for his country. “The system,” he said, “doesn’t work.”

A beautiful lifestyle

The system does work though, but for the benefit of the people running it.

People like Marcus Moloeli.

He was raised in a home without electricity, in a township south of Johannesburg, near the site of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, where police officers trained deadly fire on anti-apartheid activists. He played cricket using piles of tin cans for wickets, and contended with racially segregated restrooms.

“I always knew as a child there was something greater,” he said. “I was always curious, ‘What is in there that I can’t have access to?’  ”

At 38, Moloeli no longer needs to wonder.

He lives in a gated community set atop jungle-covered hills north of Durban, on the Indian Ocean. His two-story house boasts glistening bathrooms, a pair of garages holding two Mercedes and an Audi, plus a golf cart he drives to the country club at the center of the complex.

“It’s a good environment for me to reflect,” he said.

On a recent afternoon, he leaned into a sofa, gazed at his private pool and reflected on how a black man born in apartheid South Africa had landed here.

In his township school, 10 children shared a single textbook. For high school, he talked his way into a technical school reserved for Indians. After graduation, he bagged groceries, then moved into Johannesburg and took a job delivering antique furniture. He volunteered for a government-run youth league. That eventually turned into a staff position for Zuma, overseeing youth affairs.

Two years ago, he started his own consulting business. He secures contracts from local governments, advising them on how to manage their infrastructure. Soon, he was rich.

The ranks of South Africa’s black, Asian and mixed-race millionaires expanded to 17,300 from 6,200 from 2007-15, according to New World Wealth, a consultant based in Johannesburg. What many of these people have in common are lucrative ties to government.

“For your business to survive and thrive, you must know a politician,” Moloeli says. “If I didn’t have the networks and the access to resources, I wouldn’t be where I am.”

Geographic apartheid

Four years ago, Andile Lili, a then-37-year-old member of the Cape Town City Council, began hearing from unhappy constituents in a ragged settlement carved into a garbage dump near the airport, improbably named Barcelona.

Local authorities had constructed public toilets that emptied into giant white buckets, handing responsibility for collection to a private company. The company had supposedly cheated the workers, who were on strike. Along the dirt paths of Barcelona, human waste was forming into puddles. The stench was unbearable.

People in Barcelona were angry about many things, from a lack of jobs to the absence of public transportation, but the sewage was the final affront. Their circumstances stemmed from an economic decision made in the first years of the post-apartheid era.

Faced with the imperative to turn black political empowerment into material gains, some within the ANC called for the townships to be dismantled while resettling people near cities. The townships were ghettos of isolation, full of leaky roofs and dangerous wiring. Better to build new housing connected to transportation, putting people near jobs.

But Mandela, as president, argued that South Africa could not wait for new development. He opted to upgrade existing homes while expanding the townships by purchasing land.

From 1994-2004, the government built close to 2 million new houses in townships and informal settlements.

“We basically compounded the problems of apartheid by buying up all this cheap land as far out of the city as possible,” said Alan Hirsch, a senior official in the Trade and Industry Department during the Mandela government, and now director of the Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice at the University of Cape Town.

Today in Barcelona, the contractor comes to retrieve the buckets every three days, but the crude system remains a central facet of everyday life.

As Lili visited the settlement on a recent morning, 40 residents crowded around to complain that little had changed. Among them was Nombulelo Sakwe, a 38-year-old mother of four.

As a child, Sakwe had used moonlight and candles to do her homework for lack of electricity. She had never managed to secure a full-time job, but was working two days a week as a domestic helper for a white family in Cape Town, earning 220 rand a day — about $16. Getting there and back by private bus absorbed more than half her pay.

Her three oldest girls were in high school, and she hoped their lives would turn out differently. But she strained to see signs of that amid the filth, the crime and the merciless sun on her tin roof.

“Our children are being born in the same situation I was born,” she says. “We still want to see this freedom.”