Apartheid and Johannesburg, Past and Present

By Kate Johnston

During the Age of Exploration, European countries looked toward colonization as a solution to their social, political and economic turmoil, so in 1652 the Dutch colonized what is now South Africa in hopes for a resolution to their problems. This is when the history of the current state of South Africa began.

The Dutch originally colonized South Africa and fought for control of the area with the British in the nineteenth century. South Africa gained its independence on Dec. 11th, 1931. Although this was a step in the right direction, independence led South Africa straight into apartheid: a system of segregation based on race, keeping the white minority in complete power. Apartheid received consistent rejection from the majority of people inside and countries outside of South Africa, yet these policies continued to remain in effect for nearly 50 years. After much violence, rejection, determination, and fighting, South Africa finally eliminated apartheid laws in 1991. The lasting effects of apartheid leave a problem that, “in itself is incredibly complicated” according to Greer Buell (‘19), who traveled to South Africa this summer, along with me and a group of Collegiate students and faculty, to attend the Lebone II College Leadership Festival.

The lasting effects of apartheid leave the city of Johannesburg, the nation’s largest city, in a divided state. Director of Global Engagement and Inclusion Erica Coffey, one of the faculty members on the trip, says, “The contrast is unbelievable.” While in Johannesburg, we first visited Sandton, which is the wealthiest square mile on the entire continent. But after a quick ten-minute drive, we arrived in the Alexandra township, one of the poorest areas of South Africa. Coffey described it as if “they are night and day. You can be in Richmond, Virginia, go from a poverty stricken area and two blocks later be in a really wealthy area, but you would have to magnify that on both ends to equal what we saw. It makes you wonder, does one ever try to help the other and does the other actually want help.”

A street and houses in the Alexandra township. Photo credit: Erica Coffey.

The visiting American students, myself included, were taken aback by the conditions in Alexandra. Homes half the size of a typical living room with no running water or kitchen, and perhaps a mattress, that could have ten people living in them. Yet to the residents of Alexandria, this is home, and the lack of resources is normal. Highlighting these conditions is the contrast to the neighboring city of Sandton that Buell says is an “incredibly developed city that exceeded any and all of [her] expectations for what a metropolitan area in South Africa may look like,” with towering city skyscrapers, the Nelson Mandela Square, a two story mall, and restaurants.

The history of apartheid is evidently a contributing factor to these racially and socially segregated areas. Buell explains this parallel, “After apartheid, all of [the majority of] the land was owned by the white South Africans, so now in South Africa, 80 percent of the population is trying to fit into the 20 percent of the land that is left over, and it is not going to work.” Although the laws and regulations of apartheid are over, lasting effects of it have not completely diminished. When Nelson Mandela took power in South Africa in 1994, 87 percent of the country’s land was owned by whites, even though they represented less than ten percent of the population. The advantages that whites had during and before apartheid have not always changed with changing laws, so wealth has remained in these families for years. Little progress was made in Mandela’s efforts to redistribute land, education and job opportunity, resulting in little social recovery. Coffey explains the problem as “systemic.” The land and wealth cannot simply be completely redistributed without destroying the economy, government, and society.

The problem has history going back hundreds of years, and ‘fixing’ the problem is difficult, but as evident in these statistics, over the past 12 years the opportunity for blacks in South Africa has risen significantly. In 2004, whites, who are 8% of the population, made up 86% of those in the top bracket of living standards. By 2015, that share had fallen to 49%, with blacks making up 30%. One survey of firms found that from 1996 to 2015 the percent of black CEOs went up 33%. These statistics show more recent significant progress in South Africa’s social recovery from the apartheid and are proof that South Africa is actively working to improve the divide that apartheid created.

An upscale mall in Sandton with a statue of Nelson Mandela in front. Photo credit: Erica Coffey.

Although it still has its lasting effects, South Africa has come a long way since the end of apartheid. During the Lebone II College Festival, I was able to work with students from Ghana, Botswana, Johannesburg, and many areas around South Africa. I learned about their country’s growth and struggles in the past few decades, which were surprisingly similar to those in America. Buell describes this similarity: “for parts of the population in the United States and South Africa, the civil rights movements are still fresh in their minds — it takes an incredibly long time for things to work themselves out.” The political, social, and economic issues that were prevalent to our group were just as prevalent to students at Lebone and others. Like the United States, South Africa is continuing to develop, and I hope to visit again to see the progress and change that will happen there.

Featured image: Erica Coffey.

About the author

Kate is a junior at Collegiate.