I won’t attempt to add to the list of superlatives that have been attached to the life and work of Nelson Mandela, who is today being appropriately recognized and celebrated—except to note that many of those grand adjectives and phrases are being issued by representatives of countries that once branded him a terrorist and of universities, corporations, and other entities that for many years refused to support the anti-apartheid movement.
We also need to remember that South Africa was—and remains, 19 years after the end of apartheid—one of the world’s most unequal societies. According to a very careful study conducted by South African economist and former student Murray Leibbrandt (with Ingrid Woolard, Arden Finn, Jonathan Argent),
184. . . .the long-run development trajectory in South Africa has been one that has generated a very high-inequality society with a strong racial component to this inequality. The bottom half of the income distribution was reserved for black South Africans and, at any of a wide range of poverty lines, poverty was dominated by black South Africans. Historically this was the result of active racial privileging and discrimination in state policy. Even without the direct racial interventions in the labour market such as the reservation of jobs that took place under Apartheid, the racial biases in determining where people were allowed to live and in the education, health and social services policy matrix would have created a workforce with racially skewed human capital and spatial characteristics. Such spatial and human capital legacies leave a very long-run footprint and these processes are hard to reverse. They should not have been expected to disappear at the dawning of democratic government in South Africa. . .these factors have continued to exert an influence on South Africa’s development path. It is not just the case that the 15 years since the democratic transition is not enough time for these factors to work their ways out of South African society: it is a much more dynamic and daunting process than this.
185. While we observe a decline in the importance of between-race inequality, within-race inequality has risen sharply and this has been strong enough to stop South Africa’s aggregate inequality from falling. It should be noted that while the between-race component of inequality has fallen, it remains remarkably high by international norms and its decline has slowed since the mid 1990s. Moreover, the bottom deciles of the income distribution and the poverty profile are still dominated by Africans and racial income shares are far from proportionate with population shares. Nonetheless, South Africa’s changing population shares imply that a policy focus on race-based redistribution will become increasingly limited in the future as the foundation for further broad-based social development.