After more than two decades of democracy, South Africa remains characterised by high levels of inequality and poverty. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Cape Town - Hazel Dyalvane, 61, works as a domestic worker in Camps Bay and lives in a RDP house she received from government about 10 years ago.

She left school at the age of 15 to help augment her father’s salary. He was a migrant worker who supported a family of 12.

She soon realised the stark differences between where she works and where she lives.

“When I came to Cape Town, I lived with my employers. It was a new life: running water, electricity and food. But every weekend I would visit my relatives in KTC and go back to the conditions that I am used to."

“Over the years, I felt resentful and could not understand how we could live under such conditions of poverty,” Dyalvane said.

After more than two decades of democracy, South Africa remains characterised by persistently high levels of inequality and poverty despite some progress in improving the living conditions of poor citizens.

The country has for years been marred by an unjust system which led the majority of its citizens into lives of pain and suffering.

South Africa’s constitution and the bill of rights, adopted in 1995, were aimed at redressing the imbalances of the past, establishing a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights and improving the quality of life of all citizens.

In drafting the National Development Plan in 2013, the National Planning Commission acknowledged that South Africa remained a highly unequal society although there had been advances.

The commission said the quality of school education for most black pupils was poor, the apartheid spatial divide continued to dominate the landscape and a large proportion of young people saw the odds as being stacked against them.

Rolling back poverty and inequality was identified as the biggest challenge and urgent action was meant to be directed to achieving “quick wins”.

Earlier this month, the University of Cape Town’s Poverty and Inequality Initiative (PII), the French Development Agency and the Institute for Justice and Inequality (IJR) presented the findings of research on the relationship between social cohesion and economic inequality and what could be done to promote the former and reduce the latter.

As academics and various representatives from organisations working with communities debated the findings in a venue in Philippi, a few kilometres away lay the stark reality of poverty: Marikana informal settlement. According to recent data from Statistics SA, more than 21 million people cannot afford to purchase adequate food and non-food items and have to sacrifice food to pay for other essentials.

About 13.8 million people live in extreme poverty. Although 30.4 million are still in poverty, they are able to purchase both food and non-food items.

A draft report by the Mandela Initiative also acknowledged that white people continued to access opportunities in relation to health, income, employment, education and living conditions which enabled them to develop capacities that served to maintain their privileged positions.

South Africa’s Gini coefficient is about 0.7, while for wealth it is at least 0.9 to 0.95.

“Both these values are higher than in any major economy for which such data exists,” the report said.

The wealthiest 10% of the population own at least 90 to 95% of all wealth and while there may be a growing middle class in income terms, it did not own the assets of wealth.

According to research, income poverty continues to be strongly associated with race, with 65% of African youth living below the poverty line compared to just over 4% of white young people.

“Where people live and work matters as livelihood opportunities, physical infrastructure and public services are distributed extremely unevenly across space."

"To be confined spatially in poorly resourced or isolated places severely reduces life chances,” the draft report said.

One of the architects of the constitution, Albie Sachs said that despite the advances that have been made, more still needed to be done.

He told the dialogue session that the central drama in South Africa at the time of the talks on transition was political power-sharing, but that the constitution gives instruments of government the opportunity to advance political and socio-economic freedom.

“What is required is a political will to advance radical economic transformation.

"The constitution cries out for change in an open and transparent manner,” Sachs added.

Nomalanga Mkhize, an academic from Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, argued that the discourse of betrayal was evident during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and continued in different sectors of society.

“We have to start with the premise that the constitution started in good faith, but it’s the vehicle of deployment that is the problem."

"The ANC got captured. So we are left with the question: how do we engender trust in a system that has not been able to break elitism?” she asked.

Former finance minister Trevor Manuel agreed that it would take political will to deal with the scourge of inequality and poverty as well as an engaged citizenry.

“The role of citizens as custodians of democracy needs to be enhanced."

"We need to ask ourselves, how do we get citizens to embrace the values of democracy and exercise their choices on issues that relate to them,” he said.

The research project by the French Development Agency, PII and IJR showed that high levels of inequality and the perceptions that inequality has not improved in the post-apartheid period are the key impediments to social cohesion.

The project identified certain aspects of economics (such as the gap between rich and poor), politics (such as empty promises and patronage), race (such as racism and discrimination) and culture (such as tribalism and language) as sources of systemic and structural divisions.

IJR’s South African Reconciliation Barometer also showed that South Africans desired a united country and thought it was possible to get there.

“When we thus consider the causes of tensions between various groups, we need to consider a variety of factors that may play a role.

"This includes inequalities, trust in (and the role of) institutions, ideas about belonging and identity - often associate to language - that can be inclusive or exclusive, access to participation in social, political and economic life.

“Social cohesion processes furthermore take place in a country that is still in a process of reconciliation, with processes of healing, truth and justice taking place at the same time as social cohesion processes,” said IJR’s Elnari Potgieter.

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