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Reviewed by:
  • Class, Race, and Inequality in South Africa
  • James Heintz (bio)
Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass (2006) Class, Race, and Inequality in South Africa. Durban: UKZN Press

Originally published in 2005 by Yale University Press, Class, Race, and Inequality in South Africa presents a compelling analysis of the trends, patterns, and determinants of income distribution in South Africa over a period spanning approximately seven decades. In so doing, the authors draw together an impressive array of empirical research, including their own scholarship in this area. The result of these efforts is a significant work of synthesis that charts the continuities and turning points in the history of economic inequality in South Africa before, during, and after apartheid. This volume will certainly become a much-referenced sourcebook for future scholarly research in the field. The book's primary contribution is empirical, assembling data analysis, survey-based evidence, and case studies to explain where South Africa has been and where it may be heading in the future. In this respect, Seekings and Nattrass have produced a study that is, in several respects, unprecedented. However, the volume's contributions to policy debates and to the theory of race, class, and income distribution are more uneven.

Seekings and Nattrass organise their study around the idea of a 'distributional regime', and examine changes that have occurred in South Africa's distributional regime over time. The distributional regime encompasses the direct and indirect ways in which the state influences income distribution - through transfer payments, labour market interventions, growth strategies, social service provision (eg health and education), and public institutions. Of the different components of the distributional regime, the interactions between labour markets, education, and transfer payments (eg direct grants) receive particular attention. The authors argue that South [End Page 145] Africa, over much of the 20th century, has relied heavily on labour-market interventions to shape distributive outcomes. Therefore, documenting the changing nature of these labour markets is essential for understanding shifts in the distributional regime.

Within the broad context of a distributional regime, Seekings and Nattrass pay particular attention to income distribution within and between racial groups and between different economic classes. Again, labour markets are central to the analysis. Class positions are mostly defined in terms of occupational groupings and employment status. In this framework, economic mobility between class positions is largely synonymous with the extent of labour-market mobility. Highly segmented labour markets, therefore, produce more rigid class structures. When labour markets are segmented along racial lines - as occurred during apartheid - class and race are closely correlated. When the nature of labour-market segmentation changes, so does the relationship between class and race.

A central argument of the book is that, from the 1940s to the present, income inequalities can be observed along the lines of both class and race. However, the relative importance of class and racial distinctions changed over time. For example, in the years immediately prior to the apartheid state coming to power in the late 1940s, the distributive importance of race appears to have weakened somewhat, particularly during the labour shortages and modest welfare reforms of that decade. During the apartheid years, institutional changes, the displacement of blacks from rural farms, and unequal access to educational and employment opportunities entrenched racial differences in income distribution. A policy of full-employment for whites and differential access to employment opportunities among blacks fundamentally shaped the racial distribution of income. Although intra-racial inequalities were evident during the period of high apartheid, Seekings and Nattrass present evidence showing that interracial inequalities were significantly larger. The distributional regime shifted once again during the final years of apartheid as intra-racial inequality grew more pronounced. In the post-apartheid years, overall levels of inequality remained high because, as the authors argue, 'race had given way to class' (377).

Seekings and Nattrass document institutional changes in the distributional regime itself, not simply changes in distributional outcomes. They point out that much of the research on income distribution during apartheid focused primarily on residential and labour-market segmentation. The extent of redistribution through the budget (eg through grants and social services) [End Page 146] has received much less attention. Under apartheid, social spending was...


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