Johannesburg — In 2004, a decade into South Africa's extraordinary experiment with democratic government, Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminded us that we could "kiss reconciliation and forgiveness goodbye unless the gap between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, is narrowed."
Today, ten years on, Bishop Tutu's words ring truer than ever. For all of South Africa's astounding progress, inequality is still the single greatest impediment on the long walk to freedom – for inequality stands between the promise of democracy and the achievement of justice. That inequality is undemocratic is a basic truth that applies not just here, but in democratic nations around the world.
As supporters and champions of South Africa, we at the Ford Foundation have marveled at its social and economic advances. Since apartheid's abolition, the percentage of people living on less than two dollars a day has been halved. Clean water and electricity—harbingers of economic development—are spreading. Illiteracy is on the decline.
And yet, while the lives of South Africa's poorest have improved a great deal, they haven't improved relative to the wealthiest. The International Monetary Fund tells us that half of the country's total income goes to the top 10 percent of earners, while the bottom 20 percent of earners takes in only 2.7 percent of national income.
Simply put, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world—in spite of the fact that its constitution is the world's most democratic.
How do we address this paradox?
It is worth noting that how we answer this question has meaning far beyond these shores. Democratic nations everywhere are closely watching. After all, they are in the market for ideas—for smart approaches to equality and justice – not just in Durban, but in Detroit and Delhi, too. As has been the case for decades, the eyes of the world are upon South Africa.
And for good reason. South Africans have shown the world what democratic transitions can be, what a constitution can aspire to, and what a dedicated civil society movement can achieve. From the vantage point of the Ford Foundation, which has supported visionary people in this region since the 1950s, we have seen time and again how South Africa's vibrant academic institutions, NGOs, and grassroots groups have become beacons of hope for others around the world, blazing new trails and advancing the causes of justice and human dignity.
Two decades ago the Ford Foundation opened our first Johannesburg office, coinciding with the incredible birth of democracy, transitional justice and reconciliation here. Since then, we have been privileged to work with organizations dedicated to eradicating inequality and injustice in all of its forms.
This week, in commemoration of this anniversary, we and our trustees are inviting leaders from government, business, the academy, and the arts to examine new solutions—and to reaffirm our commitment to the people seeking those solutions and making them work. We invite you to join the conversation, too. Share your ideas on how to fulfill the great promise of democracy and achieve equality at #FordSA20.
Our promise to you is simple: We will continue to be a resource for South Africa's visionaries, people who pursue ideas, build institutions, and amplify the voices of the marginalized. We will continue to provide seed support for innovation, facilitate dialogue and cooperation among agents of change in every sector, and help empower South Africa's next great generation of leaders for social justice.
A generation ago, Nelson Mandela told his fellow citizens—whom he called the real heroes of South Africa's transformation—that "the whole world is watching our progress, and willing us on." He was right then, and he is still right now. This country has over the decades overcome enormous challenges, and we know it can overcome the obstacles it faces now.
The world is still willing it to once again set the example by building a country in which social justice and equality are a reality for all.