Segregation and stratification of occupations in post-apartheid South Africa


Racial segregation, the legacy of apartheid

Although there are other countries with large racial/ethnic inequalities, the extent, the duration, and the extremeness of the racial divide makes South Africa unique. The lives of South Africans have been dominated by institutionalized racial segregation since the arrival of European settlers and this was intensified during the decades of apartheid until the first democratic elections in 1994. Racial segregation in pre-democratic South Africa was an ideology to legitimize difference implemented with a combination of legislative bars and social practices, and affected every possible sphere of life (e.g. location, mobility, work, education, health, transport, recreation, politics, or sexual relationships).

A labor market strongly stratified by race

The ultimate purpose of racial segregation, however, was to force non-whites to provide seasonal, cheap, and abundant labor for farms, mines, and other sectors, while depriving them from any access to education, economic resources, or political power. Core elements of this system were the ‘colour bar’ or job reservation for whites that excluded blacks from skilled and semi-skilled jobs, and the system of massive temporary labor migration, that so much disruption caused on black families. The legacy is a society characterized by huge inequalities by race in living conditions, education, or performance in the labor market.

A new deracialized South Africa?

Post-apartheid South Africa brought the dismantlement of the segregative legislation, as well as the implementation of anti-discriminatory affirmative policies and the expansion of social expenditure to reverse the inherited situation. However, deeply rooted inequalities along racial lines proved more difficult to remove, especially when the economy did not help, unable to absorb a growing unskilled labor supply of black African workers. The result was a chronically high level of unemployment.

Is the labor market becoming less segregated by race?

Some empirical evidence has addressed so far racial inequalities in poverty, employment rates or in earnings. However, the main issue remained open: Is the South African post-apartheid labor market becoming less segregated and stratified by race? By segregation, I mean whether black Africans and whites work in different occupations. By stratification, whether blacks tend to systematically be segregated into the lowest-paying jobs.

In a recent open-access paper I try to provide an answer to this question. This is a challenging task due to several flaws in available data on the distribution of a detailed classification of occupations in South Africa over time. I considered information from two main sources: the 1996 and 2001 Censuses combined with the 2007 Community Survey, and a series of labor force surveys (1994-2015).

Blacks continue to disproportionally work in different and least-paying occupations

I used indices that summarize the trend in both segregation and stratification to find out that little, if anything, has changed over time in the magnitude of segregation as well as in its nature (see figures below with Gini and Dissimilarity indices). There are some declines observed in certain periods, but even those are subject to some data considerations.

A multigroup analysis shows that other nonwhite population groups (Coloured and, especially, Indian/Asian) have more significantly improved their relative position in the labor market when they are compared with whites.

Some racial segregation is explained by educational inequalities

In this context, a second fundamental issue is to identify how much of this segregation/stratification is explained by the distinct characteristics of black and white workers. Blacks tend to have much lower attained education, they are more likely to live in rural areas and in the poorest provinces, or to have more children in their households, and they are less likely to be married. It could be that the high and persistent segregation were the result of these pre-labor market endowments rather than a failure of the labor market. After considering these characteristics, I concluded that about a third of the current segregation and about a half of the segregation of blacks into low-paying occupations are driven by racial inequality in attained education and, to a much lower extent, in the geographical location. The rest cannot be explained by observed characteristics. It can be the result of unobservable factors, of which the large gap in the quality of schools attended by blacks and whites and prevalent subtler discriminatory practices are possibly the main candidates.

Segregation and stratification with of workers with the same characteristics

The trends in segregation and stratification are even more persistent over time (although with lower levels), when we compare workers of both population groups with similar characteristics. This means that if there was any improvement, it was due to the higher attained education of blacks rather than to a better functioning of the labor market. This does not mean that nothing has changed in post-apartheid South Africa. There is evidence of significant improvements in absolute terms in the education or in the living conditions of the black population, and a higher proportion of them can now be found in skilled jobs, especially in the public sector. But more research is needed to understand how racial inequalities operate and why they turned out to be so persistent even after the intense political changes the country went through.

Based on: Carlos Gradín, “Occupational segregation by race in South Africa after apartheid”, Review of Development Economics, 23(2): 553-576, 2019.

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