Class Warfare (in Cape Town)

I recently took my first trip to South Africa. It’s an astoundingly beautiful country, with an astoundingly sad history. After returning to San Francisco, I wanted to reflect on what I had seen through the lens of the current situation in the Bay Area.

Heads up – this isn’t your average travel blog post.

South Africa

Over a couple of weeks between Johannesburg and Cape Town, I saw natural wonders that rivalled my experiences in Iceland and even New Zealand.

The view from atop Table Mountain takes your breath away
The view from atop Table Mountain takes your breath away
The coastline here is incredible
The coastline here is incredible

However, I also witnessed an extreme divide between the wealthy and the poor (typically split on racial lines). This is despite the fact that apartheid ended over 20 years ago in this country.

Townships: basically third-world shanty towns off the highway
Townships: basically third-world shanty towns off the highway

What happened here? Well, the Apartheid Museum does a much better job explaining it than I can – but the gist is that a half century of government-mandated inequality between the whites, blacks, colored, and native peoples of South Africa can’t be undone that easily. Policies that continuously gave one class of people the best schools, healthcare, proximity to jobs, opportunities to own property, etc. resulted in a multi-generational compounding advantage that is extremely difficult to correct for today.

So even though the South African government’s stated intent is to reintegrate society, the reality is that the inequality between the classes will be felt for hundreds of years to come.

The impoverished people who were pushed out to the remote townships will likely remain there for the foreseeable future. Here are some answers to questions that might seem rational at first take:

  • Why don’t they just move back into the cities?
    • They don’t have any home in the cities, nor the means or connections to acquire one.
  • Why don’t they just get jobs?
    • All the jobs are in the cities and there is no public transportation infrastructure built to move people between townships and cities.
    • They have not been trained for jobs beyond menial labor.
  • Why don’t they educate themselves?
    • There is no educational infrastructure (i.e. schools) anywhere near them.
    • They don’t have the capacity to focus on education when basic necessities like food, water, and electricity are hard to come by.

Given this situation, it is no wonder why burglaries are so common that wealthy homeowners now hire private security and turn their houses into fortified mansions. It is no wonder I was nearly mugged three times in cities during my trip. (Some stories for another time…)

San Francisco

Now let’s turn our attention back to the United States and the situation on the ground in San Francisco. We also have areas of amazing natural beauty here…

View of Golden Gate Bridge and Lands End in San Francisco
Scenic coastline – check!

But I also regularly walk past neighborhoods that are not unlike what I saw in the townships of South Africa…

Tent encampments under the highway in San Francisco
Tent cities: basically third-world shanty towns under highways

The parallels are uncanny. And I believe the underlying root cause is the same – wealth inequality taken to extremes.

Let this be the canonical example of how humans around the world are really more alike than different.

Why is any of this important?

I’m sharing these experiences of being in South Africa and San Francisco because they were eye-opening for me. Also, I believe there’s a lesson here for all of us: allow inequality to continue in excess and the result is a broken society that works for no one.

Sure – in South Africa, the poor suffer continuously. But the wealthy now have to live in constant fear that they’ll be robbed or mugged by the poor who have no alternatives. Walking around in Cape Town, I couldn’t help but think that if it wasn’t for all this crime, this would be one of the most livable cities in the world. (Yeah, it could be up there with Vancouver.)

Research also shows that inequality also leads to a drag on entrepreneurship and economic growth. See this recent article from SPUR for a detailed analysis of how it’s affecting the Bay Area.

I’m not trying to be a SJW or call for a revolution here. I only hope that this comparison between the situation in South Africa and San Francisco is as eye-opening for you as well. I hope it encourages more people to support the governmental policies needed to address the ever-expanding inequality problem. It’s clearly a global issue, and truly the “defining challenge of our time”.

If you have any thoughts about inequality (or similar experiences in other countries), I am eager to hear about them!

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