South Africa has a complex history when it comes to race. The apartheid that persisted for much of the 20th century and ended in 1994 caused huge international scrutiny and debate. Since the end of apartheid, how have the black communities fared in terms of mending the years of damage this event caused? A look at one of the most disadvantaged groups in South African society, the black woman, will help us understand if South Africa has progressed.  

The most recent study by the Department of Labor in South Africa was conducted in 2011. The report shows that only 31 percent of black women in South Africa were employed, which was the lowest number for all groups. Compare this to the most advantaged group, white males, at 73 percent employment. It should be noted that all other categories — black men, white women and Indian/Asian — all had higher employment than black women in South Africa. However, only the extremes between the most advantaged group and the most disadvantaged group will be compared in this case to exemplify the shocking disparity.

Looking at the rest of the numbers, we see that 14 percent of black women were unemployed, which means they did not work the week before the survey was taken but they were actively looking for work. To be fair, 14 percent unemployment does not seem relatively high, but there is another number to account for the rest of the women. Forty-five percent of black women were considered not economically active (NEA). This category includes discouraged work seekers who were not employed during the week of the survey, but wanted to work and could not find work due to a lack of available jobs or lost hope of finding work. Compare that to 4 percent unemployed white males and 23 percent of white males as NEA.

These numbers show a glaring disparity that exists in the labor market between black women and white males. Apartheid supposedly ended two decades ago, so why does this inequality still exist? One of the main reasons is education. A lack of education and usable skills are characteristic of the chronically unemployed and, conversely, those with a tertiary degree have the lowest rate of unemployment.  

In South Africa “the large majority of black students come from low-income families that do not have the financial resources to support the pursuit of higher education.” About 9 percent of black women in South Africa advance to schooling past grade 12, compared to 40 percent of white males. However, a 2013 report from the county’s Council on Higher Education (CHE) states that the university dropout rate for black students is over 50 percent. From this we can estimate that only 4.5 percent of black women even receive a university degree. Clearly, black women are not being given easy access to higher education and are therefore suffering in the job market. 

If there is low unemployment amongst people who have tertiary degrees, it would seem that the South African government needs to spend more time and money on making higher education available to lower-income individuals like black women. Higher levels of university graduates will help the South African society and economy grow in numerous ways. Reversing racism and, in this case, also sexism, is of course quite a difficult task. With such obvious structural racist and sexist disparities between white males and black females in South Africa, it is clear the country has not progressed enough. We can only hope that those working hard to change this unfair situation have success in the near future.  

— Eleni Marino

Sources: CHE, SA News, South African DOL, Statistics South Africa, The Guardian
Photo: Jaunt to Joberg