University of Pretoria: UP marks release of World Bank inequality report with panel discussion

The University of Pretoria (UP) recently hosted a panel discussion to mark the release of the World Bank’s inequality report, which focused on the Southern African Customs Union (SACU). The event was hosted both virtually and in-person from UP’s Future Africa Institute.

The report, titled ‘Inequality in Southern Africa: an assessment of the Southern African Customs Union’, found that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world, with race playing a determining factor in a society where 10% of the population owns more than 80% of the wealth. South Africa, which is the largest country in the SACU, ranked first among 164 countries based on the Gini coefficient of income per capita.

The panel discussion was moderated by Nozipho Tshabalala, CEO of the Conversation Strategists, and featured various academics and thought leaders from UP, the World Bank and other organisations, including the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics and the African Centre of Excellence for Inequality Research at the University of Cape Town.

“Despite SACU countries undertaking some of the most redistributive spending in the world, particularly on education and health, inequality remains extremely high,” said Marie Francoise Marie-Nelly, World Bank Country Director for Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and South Africa.

The report aims to do a systematic analysis of inequality in the SACU, said Dr Pierella Paci, Practice Manager of the Poverty and Equity Group of the World Bank covering Eastern and Southern Africa, in her opening remarks.

“This report focuses primarily on consumption and income; it is monitoring equality but also inequality in other factors,” she said. “The report showed that the lack of access to key productive assets such as skills and land was slowing progress towards more equitable income distribution. Improving access and availability of private sector jobs and access to productive assets such as land will help equalise opportunities. Members of the SACU must start enhancing the impact of fiscal policy on inequality by improving the equity and efficiency of social spending.”

Deputy Director at the Future Africa Institute Dr Neeraj Mistry added that the report acknowledged that the legacies of colonialism and apartheid have reinforced inequality in South Africa. “However,” he said, “we are in 2022 and the past is not our fault – the present and future is our collective responsibility. As UP, we have been reimagining our role in society and focused on cutting-edge transdisciplinary research to help break new ground and tackle unanswered questions in a world and continent that are facing overwhelming challenges.”

“Gender also plays an important role,” Dr Paci said. “In the region, women earn on average 30% less than men with the same level of education. The pay gap between men and women reaches 38% in Namibia and South Africa. The uneven distribution of agricultural land is another factor that is driving inequality, especially in rural areas. In Namibia, 70% of the 39.7 million hectares of commercial agricultural land still belong to Namibians of European descent.”

Vera Shongwe, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, pointed out that it is important to build resilience. “This report gives a sense of where to go and how to go about doing it,” she said. Shongwe cited the example of Namibia which, in an era of climate change, has hydrogen in its stores. “We need to figure out how to use it because it is in demand; [taking steps like this] will ensure that we close some of the gaps contributing to inequality.”

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