Ethnic Stratification and Conflict in South Africa

Ethnic Stratification and Conflict in South Africa


Institutional Affiliation

South Africa

Description of the Country

South Africa is a country found in the southernmost part of Africa, bordering the South Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean. It is the largest country in Southern Africa with an estimated population of about 56 million people. The country gained autonomy from the British Empire in 1961 after decades of British rule and influence. Between 1948 and 1994, the country experienced the highest levels of ethnic stratification. This was the apartheid era, a distinct characteristic being the adoption of the white minority rule in the country. During the apartheid era, institutionalized segregation of the people into three racial groups became the order of the day. The whites became the dominant group, controlling larger black Africans in the region. The whites have continued to dominate virtually all sectors of the South African economy since the apartheid era to the current period. Despite the coming to an end of the dark apartheid era, ethnic stratification is still rife in the country.

Ethnic groups in the Country

South Africa has four major racial groups, which include black Africans, whites, colored, and Asians/Indians. Black Africans comprise the largest racial group, accounting for about 80.2 percent of the population (CIA World Factbook, 2017). Whites comprise about 8.4 percent of the population. Colored (mixed race ancestry) and Indians/Asians make up about 8.8 percent and 2.5 percent respectively (CIA World Factbook, 2017). Whites in South Africa are mainly of Dutch origin. This is because of Dutch colonization of the country in 1652 (Oliver & Oliver, 2017). The original inhabitants of South Africa are native black African groups such as the Khoisan, Nguni, Venda, and Tsonga. The native people were mainly nomadic with no actual claim to the land. Their nomadic lifestyle made it easy for the Dutch to move and settle in the area. At the beginning of the 20th century, South Africa became a colony of the British Empire following the defeat of the Anglo-Boers.

Ethnic Stratification System in the Country

Ethnic stratification in South Africa plays a critical role in determining the social ranking of different groups. Perceptions of race and national origin play a significant role in the ranking of individuals in social positions. Membership to a certain race guarantees individuals higher social ranking or certain rewards. Although there are laws that attempt to eliminate the concept of racism and ethnicity in the country, the two concepts still play a dominant role in influencing an individual’s social ranking or success. Ethnic stratification is rife in South Africa despite the coming to an end of the apartheid rule in 1994. Post-apartheid South Africa shows patterns of glaring social, economic, and political inequalities between people from different ethnic groups.

Related paper: SOC 308 Ethnic Stratification and Conflict

The indigenous tribes in South Africa still experience social inequalities. The black population has the highest number of people living in extreme poverty and who experience social exclusion (Seekings, 2003). The whites in South Africa continue to enjoy significant privileges compared to other ethnic groups.  Although the class position has increasingly gained prominence as the major source of power for the whites, ethnicity still plays a central role in determining power and class. While there are arguments among scholars over the role that class and ethnicity play in influencing social rankings, it is clear that black Africans are worse off in virtually all inequality makers across social classes, such as health, education, and income. As such, it is clear that ethnic stratification still plays a dominant role in influencing an individual’s future success.

Ethnic Problems or Harmony

Prejudice and Discrimination

Prejudice and discrimination are two important concepts in evaluating ethnic problems in a particular country. Prejudice occurs when individuals make prior judgments about others. Prejudice reflects attitudes that a dominant group hold towards another group, and usually the subordinate group. Prejudicial thoughts tend to be negative. Prejudice may also reflect inaccurate beliefs that a group holds towards another. On the other hand, discrimination involves treating the members of a particular group unfairly and especially denying them opportunities in education, employment, and leadership because they belong to the subordinate group. Prejudice and discrimination are common aspects in South Africa. Black Africans have experienced the worst forms of prejudice and discrimination in the country since the Dutch colonization. The British also perpetuated prejudice and colonization after they seized power in the early 1900s.

Examples of Ethnic Problems

Black South African population still experiences high rates of discrimination. One of the ways that blacks face discrimination is through unequal employment opportunities. According to Callebert (2014), a majority of black South Africans belong to an underclass, characterized by extreme poverty levels due to lack of employment opportunities. Naidoo, Stanwix, and Yu (2014) observed that despite black South Africans attaining high educational status in the recent period, they continue to experience disproportionate representation in the job market. Glaring wealth inequalities exist in the country along racial and ethnic lines. In a study by Wittenberg (2017), the findings indicated that South Africa has high wealth inequalities that are reflective of ethnic disparities in the region. Further, the author asserts that about 90 percent of the wealth and income inequalities arise from racial disparities. Only less than 15 percent of income inequalities are attributable to between-group inequalities.

There is a gross underrepresentation of black South Africans across various sectors of the economy, such as in academics. Despite the whites being the minority group (4 million compared to over 50,000 black South Africans), they have the highest number of academics in the country’s higher education institutions (“MDG”, 2015). In 2012, for instance, there were 4,755 whites working as staffs in academic institutions, compared to 3,394 black South Africans. Differences in earnings contribute to high-income disparities between various ethnic groups. Data from the World Bank (2018) indicates that black South African households have the highest poverty levels with 47 percent living below the poverty line. Colored people come second, with only 23 percent of colored households living below the poverty line. Asians/Indians record the least poverty levels, with 1 percent and below 1 percent of the respective population groups living below the poverty line.

Structural discrimination is evident in South Africa’s land politics. Land issues continue to be a major source of conflicts in South Africa. These long-standing issues remain unresolved since the colonial era in the country. Estimates indicate that whites own about 78 percent of the land, with blacks having control of about 22 percent of the land despite being the majority (Graham, 2017). During the colonial and apartheid period, the white-controlled government introduced discriminative policies that hindered most black South Africans from owning land. Successive regimes have perpetuated these injustices instead of finding a long-lasting solution. This means that even after the fall of apartheid policy most black South Africans remain landless and living in slums.

Consequences of Discrimination

There have been serious employment disparities in South Africa’s labor market resulting from ethnic discrimination. During the apartheid era, black South Africans were excluded from employment opportunities through a system of education that focused on entrenching low-level skills. Education for whites focused on language, mathematics, and sciences. On the other hand, education for blacks focused on supplying unskilled labor to the country, with little focus on language and mathematics. The result of this is low job market skills among black South Africans, which still affect their ability to get jobs. Educational attainment for black South Africans remains low compared to that of other ethnic groups in the country (Gradin, 2015). This is associated with the low parental education levels of most black South Africans.

Another consequence of discrimination is land inequalities, with black South Africans marginalized in unproductive areas and far away from major towns. This makes it difficult for them to access the major towns and look for job opportunities. Another consequence is the high poverty rates among black South Africans. Poverty continues to be a major issue among this group, with whites recording the least poverty levels. Discrimination also influences the incidence and prevalence of disease across the population. An example of a consequence of discrimination is the large representation of whites in Academic institutions and the underrepresentation of blacks in the same, despite the blacks being the larger population. This is a clear indication of how discrimination leads to deprivation of opportunities for the subordinate group.

Research on Ethnicity in South Africa

Experts on Ethnic Problems and Findings

The World Bank Group provides useful data and statistics on the situation in South Africa. These statistics can be helpful in understanding ethnic stratification in South Africa and its impact on the country’s ethnic minorities. Some of the key statistics from the World Bank Group include employment patterns, economic growth statistics, income inequality figures, and consumption trends in the country. For instance, statistics from the World Bank Group (2018) indicates high inequality of opportunity figures in the country. This means that a large segment of the population does not have equal access to basic services that include education, necessary infrastructure, and access to health care. Statistics indicate that South Africa has an inequality of opportunity rate averaging 40 percent.

The findings from the World Bank Group (2018) suggest that the country has experienced a dismal change in key inequality measures since the end of the apartheid rule. In fact, there are concerns that the income gap between ethnic groups has worsened over the last two decades. South Africa has among the highest Gini coefficients in Africa, measured as 0.63 in 2015 (The World Bank, 2018). This figure is an increase since 1994, indicating the growing inequalities in the country. Consumption trends show a stagnation in the country’s bottom percentile from 2011 to 2015. This indicates that there has been no significant change in terms of earnings for the country’s poorest population that is predominantly black. Between the 40th and 75th percentile, there was significant growth, indicating improving fortunes for this group.

Comparison with the United States

Ethnic groups and Ethnic Stratification in the United States

The United States has three major ethnic groups. The dominant population is the whites, which also comprises the largest ethnic group at 72.4 percent of the population (CIA World Factbook, 2017). Blacks come second in terms of numbers at 12.6 percent of the population. The third largest group is the Asians, comprising of 4.8 percent of the population. Other notable ethnic groups are Alaska Natives and Hawaiians at 0.9 percent and 0.2 percent respectively (CIA World Factbook, 2017). Mixed races comprise about 2.9 percent of the population. Other ethnic groups make up a combined 6.2 percent of the population. The whites comprise of the dominant group, while African Americans comprise the subordinate group. Whites have better opportunities for education, employment, and health.

Ethnic Conflict and Discrimination in the United States

Ethnic conflict and discrimination in the United States were prevalent in the last century. Ethnic conflicts can be traced to the introduction of slavery in the early 17th century. In the 19th century, slavery was abolished in the United States through the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment (Waters & Karl, 1995). Nonetheless, the end of slavery did not significantly improve the social position of most African Americans. From the end of the slave trade era to the mid-20th century, high inequalities existed between blacks and whites. Racial and ethnic inequalities existed largely due to segregationist policies established in the United States, also known as the Jim Crow law (Waters & Karl, 1995). From the 1950s, civil rights movements gained prominence, their major goal is to end racial and ethnic discrimination through non-violent protests. In the mid-1960s, new legislation outlawed any form of racial discrimination or inequalities in the country.

Similarities between South Africa and the United States

Similarity in Ethnic Groups, Ethnic stratification, and Ethnic Conflict

One of the similarities among ethnic groups in both countries is that they mainly involve blacks and whites. Asians/Indians are involved, to some extent, in both countries. The source of ethnic conflicts can is traceable to colonialism and the slave trade. In both countries, there were attempts to institutionalize ethnic stratification, with the US introducing the Jim Crow laws and South Africa apartheid policy. Blacks and Asians/Indians in both countries have suffered the most in terms of racial discrimination and lack of opportunities. As such, blacks and Asians/Indians record higher poverty rates in both societies. Blacks have the highest poverty rates in both societies. Social classes – the upper class, middle class, lower class, and the working poor, characterize both societies. Lastly, both countries have experienced inter-ethnic conflicts. Racial tension is evident in both countries

Differences between South Africa and the United States

Differences in Ethnic Groups, Ethnic stratification, and Ethnic Conflict

One of the glaring differences in the ethnic groups is that in South Africa the minority group is the dominant group, while the United States the larger group is the dominant group. With regard to ethnic stratification, South Africa has high income and wealth inequality rates between blacks and whites compared to the United States with lower inequality rates. For instance, South Africa has a polarization index of 0.37 while in the United States is it stands at 0.22 (The World Bank, 2018). South Africa had a rigid social and political system (apartheid) for perpetrating ethnic stratification. In the United States, such a law existed among the Southern United States. The Jim Crow laws applied mainly in the Southern United States until they were abolished in the 1960s.


Ethnic stratification and conflict continue to be a major force shaping the social, political, and economic environments in most nations. South Africa is one of the countries that have experienced significant ethnic stratification and conflict over the last few centuries. Black South Africans, despite being the majority, continue to experience subordination from the minority whites. Ethnic stratification and conflict in the country have contributed to high poverty rates, low educational attainment, unemployment, and lower health outcomes among the marginalized groups in both countries. This is notwithstanding the social ills associated with high poverty levels. There are similar patterns of ethnic stratification and conflict in both countries, with both involving blacks and whites and the attempts to institutionalize racial discrimination. A major difference between the two is that in South Africa the dominant group is the minority group, unlike in the United States.


Callebert, R. (2014). Transcending dual economies: Reflections on ‘Popular economies in South             Africa’. Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute, 84(1), 119-134.             doi:10.1017/S0001972013000636

CIA World Factbook. (2017). Africa: South Africa. Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved from   

Gradin, C. (2015). Poverty and ethnicity among black South Africans. The European Journal of             Development Research, 27(5), 921-942. doi:10.1057/ejdr.2014.76

Graham, S. (2017, March 3). Jacob Zuma calls for confiscation of white land without       compensation. The Telegraph. Retrieved from      without-compensation/

MDG. (2015). Millennium Development Goals: promote gender equality and empower women.   Statistics South Africa. Retrieved from

Naidoo, K., Stanwix, B., & Yu, D. (2014). Reflecting on racial discrimination in the post- apartheid South African labour market. World Bank Group.

Oliver, E., & Oliver, W. H. (2017). The colonisation of South Africa: A unique case. HTS            Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies, 73(3), e1-e8. doi:10.4102/hts.v73i3.4498

Seekings, J. (2003). Social stratification and inequality in South Africa at the end of apartheid.     Center for Social Science Research. Retrieved from   

The World Bank. (2018). Overcoming poverty and inequality in South Africa: an assessment of   drivers, constraints and opportunities. The World Bank Group.

Waters, M. C., & Karl, E. (1995). Immigration and ethnic and racial inequality in the United        States. Annual Review of Sociology, 21: 419-446.

Wittenberg, M. (2017). Wages and wage inequality in South Africa 1994–2011: Part 1 – wage             measurement and trends. South African Journal of Economics, 85(2), 279-297.             doi:10.1111/saje.12148