Residential housing stands in the Alexandra township as the skyscraper office buildings in the Sandton area stand on the skyline beyond in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Thursday, June 11, 2020.
Waldo Swiegers — Bloomberg / Getty Images
August 5, 2021 7:05 AM EDT

The social architecture formed over more than three centuries of White rule has maintained South Africa’s position as the world’s most unequal society, according to the Thomas Piketty-backed World Inequality Lab.

Attempts by the now-democratic government to wipe away the legacy of apartheid and colonialism have failed to narrow the imbalance between rich and poor, with 3,500 adults owning more than the poorest 32 million people in the country of 60 million, it said in a report released this week.

“There is no evidence that wealth inequality has decreased since the end of apartheid,” the group said. “Asset allocations before 1993 still continue to shape wealth inequality.”

During colonialism and structured apartheid from the late 1940s, Black South Africans were largely denied economic opportunities. More than a quarter century of democratic rule has seen the growth of a Black middle class and a Black business and political elite. Yet, most South Africans still suffer from a woeful education system that leaves them ill prepared for jobs, while townships, built for Blacks during apartheid, leave them far away from workplaces.

Discontent with economic prospects and an unemployment rate of more than 30% has stoked unrest in Africa’s most industrialized economy. That’s limited expansion and curtailed investment.

Laws ranging from affirmative action to mandating minimum Black-owned stakes in businesses have done little to narrow inequality, according to the group.

“South Africa’s successive governments endorsed several ambitious socioeconomic policy frameworks whose primary objectives consistently included reducing economic inequality inherited from colonial and apartheid regimes,” it said. “Yet, wealth inequality has remained remarkably stable.”

Wealth Gap

In South Africa, the richest 10% of the population own more than 85% of household wealth, while over half the population have more liabilities than assets, the report showed. That gap is higher than any other country for which sufficient data is available, the group added. The richest 1% in South Africa have likely increased their share of wealth since the end of apartheid, the group said.

While Black South Africans have outnumbered Whites in the richest 10% of the population for about 7 years, the gap between South Africa’s richest and poorest hasn’t narrowed as the decline in racial inequality has been driven almost entirely by a surge in the top Black incomes rather than increased wealth for the poorest, according to World Inequality Lab data.

The report was based on data gathered from 1993 to 2017 and was authored by Amory Gethin of the World Inequality Lab, which is linked to the Paris School of Economics, together with Aroop Chatterjee of Johannesburg’s University of The Witwatersrand’s Southern Centre for Inequality Studies and Leo Czajka of the Universite Catholique de Louvain in Belgium.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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