Is South Africa a Third World country?

(This policy bulletin is an extract from South Africa The Growth Imperative by Michael O’Dowd, Published by Jonathan Ball, 1991 (Chapter 4))

Is South Africa then a Third World country? How not? The criteria of development are the per capita income and the extent to which the population is engaged in industry. A typical First World country has a per capita income of between $10,000 and $15,000 a year and ninety-five per cent of its population in industry or urban services and five per cent in agriculture. Furthermore, agriculture is really a modern and very mechanized industry. The only exception is New Zealand where a far larger proportion is engaged in a very modern, very industrialised agriculture. And South Africa? Per capita income is $2,000. Population engaged in industry and urban services is about fifty per cent. And the agricultural sector still contains millions of people engaged in traditional subsistence-style activities.

So far from being unique, South Africa closely resembles Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, and has a good deal in common with the United States at the end of the last century, with Japan just before the last War, and with Britain in the 1850s (although Britain’s absolute level of wealth was much lower, because the industry that people were involved in was, by our standards, primitive.)

If there is one fact that stands out beyond any possibility of denial it is that South Africa is a Third World country. But all sorts of people deny it. How does this come about?

There is nothing new or unusual in the wealthy minority of a Third World country trying to simulate for themselves the societies which they see in the more advanced countries. To see how this was done in the last century, go and look at Milan or Madrid and see the imposing monumental buildings in the style of the end of the 19th century. Two countries that were at the time desperately poor tried to build themselves capitals in imitation of London. Contemporary Rio is not so different, and of course that is exactly what Pretoria is, and in a rather less systematic way, Johannesburg.

To believe that you are an advanced country when you are not, you have to not count the poor, or most of them. This was done in South Africa on a grand scale. One of the purposes of grand apartheid was to give a theoretical underpinning to this delusion. But even this is not unusual, except perhaps in the thoroughness with which it was attempted. In 19th century England it was quite common to refer to ‘The Nation’ as meaning only the upper and middle classes, and it is quite clear that even writers like Dickens, who were aware of the poor and, by their own lights, sympathized with them, did not really grasp how numerous they were.

Source: This policy bulletin may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.


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