Second Opinion

Land of inequalities

/ 05:10 AM June 06, 2019

JOHANNESBURG — My first memorable image of South Africa, after arriving at the O.R. Tambo International Airport, is the sight of four black boys dancing on the road, hoping that some of the (mostly white) drivers would be kind enough to give them some coins as they waited in front of a red traffic light.

That image — of black marginality and white privilege — will be replayed in many contexts throughout this study visit organized by the Equity Initiative, a fellowship program committed to addressing health inequities in Southeast Asia. In the hotels and restaurants in Rosebank, for instance, a mostly black workforce wait on a mostly white clientele. There may be a growing black middle class — e.g. professionals you see in Starbucks with their MacBooks — but they remain the exceptional few.


South Africa’s racial inequalities are rooted in a painful and complex history — one of colonialism and collusion, mining and migration, slavery and segregation. Building on centuries of oppressive policies, apartheid became official state policy in the late 1940s through a series of laws that evicted blacks from their homes, denied them suffrage and deprived them even of the right to marry people of other “races.”

Visiting the Apartheid Museum and seeing the signs of segregation — “Whites Only”; “Non-Whites Only” — one is reminded of how “race” is socially and politically constructed: Most Asians were once classified as “colored” (among other racial categories), but the Japanese were treated as “honorary whites” owing to their economic power.


What of the Filipinos, who, as former ambassador Virgilio A. Reyes Jr. writes, have been around for over a hundred years? Theirs is a history that deserves to be written.

As with all evils throughout history, apartheid was met with resistance, and in its telling, the legacy of Nelson Mandela looms large: his 27 years in prison, his political philosophy, his  heroic leadership. But there were many other activists of all backgrounds—for instance, Fr. Michael Lapsley, an antiapartheid Anglican priest from New Zealand who lost both hands to a letter bomb in 1990 while in exile in Zimbabwe. All of their efforts ultimately led to the official abolition of apartheid in 1994.

Some 25 years later, however, many are left wondering how much has really changed. Although there is now legal equality, profound social and economic inequalities remain, illustrated by the fact that the three wealthiest individuals—all white men—have the same wealth as the poorest 50 percent of all South Africans. “We are still in apartheid,” a student at Wits University told me, pointing to the income disparities that perpetuate racial segregation.

These inequalities are reflected in the health sector. The HIV prevalence is 16.6 percent among blacks but just 1.1 percent among whites; black women have an even higher prevalence at 20.6 percent, owing to their intersectional marginality. In the overwhelmingly black township of Soweto, I had the chance to interact with community members and saw how unemployment—up to 70 percent among young people — has led to alcohol and substance abuse. Coupled with the proliferation of cheap, highly processed foods, it is also contributing to the rise of obesity and noncommunicable diseases.

In concluding his talk about the need for the healing of memories, Father Lapsley called on us to “use South Africa as a mirror of the human family in all its beauty and ugliness.”

Reflecting on our own situation, one might think that the Philippines is doing better: At first glance, we do not seem to have a history of racial exclusion, and by some metrics — unemployment rate, GDP growth, Gini coefficient — our economy is actually performing well. But when I think of our indigenous peoples; the thousands killed in the drug war; and the millions who suffer from chronic hunger, I realize that perhaps our country is not so different.

Perhaps we have our own apartheid back home — one that creates and perpetuates different worlds out of Marawi and Makati; of Baseco and BGC; the ever-decreasing land of the farmers and the “lumad” — and the ever-expanding land of the Sys and the Villars.


Perhaps the only difference is that the inequalities back home no longer shock us.

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TAGS: Apartheid, Gideon Lasco, Nelson Mandela, racial inequality, Second Opinion, South Africa
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