Trends in racial inequality in greater Johannesburg

How is racial desegregation going in South Africa’s largest city? Guest blogger Owen Crankshaw reveals unexpected findings which challenge some commonly-held views.

Owen Crankshaw's picture
Emeritus professor at the University of Cape Town. His research interests are in the fields of urban inequality and research methodology.
17 April 2023
The transition to a predominantly urban world
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Grayscale photo of city buildings

Johannesburg, South Africa (Photo: Hennie Stander via Unsplash)

Many scholars and commentators argue that South African cities have not changed substantially since the end of apartheid. They say that racial inequality has persisted because its basic structures have not been dismantled. Specifically, they argue that White employees still take most high-paid jobs, and that racial residential segregation has not declined substantially. Others, however, argue that racial inequality has been significantly eroded on both these counts.

My research on greater Johannesburg demonstrates that the extent of racial desegregation in the formerly Whites-only neighbourhoods is much more widespread than is commonly accepted. And that a significant reason for this is the upward occupational mobility of Black residents into higher-paid jobs.

What the numbers tell us

I used statistics from population censuses to measure the racial composition of the formerly Whites-only neighbourhoods from 1996 to 2011. The data are available as a full count of all residents, which allows for measurements of the population in small neighbourhoods.

The reliability of the three censuses, taken in 1996, 2001 and 2011, is demonstrated by consistent long-term statistical trends in the racial composition of neighbourhoods. I have used the anti-apartheid movement’s racial classification, which described all politically-oppressed races (African, Coloured and Indian) as ‘Black’ citizens.

The results showed that the percentage of White residents living in all formerly Whites-only neighbourhoods declined from 61% in 1996 to 44% in 2011. In other words, by 2011 Black residents already made up 56% of residents in the formerly Whites-only neighbourhoods of Johannesburg.

The changing percentage racial composition of the formerly whites-only residential neighbourhoods of Johannesburg, 1996 to 2011

By extrapolating the growth rate for the period from 2001 to 2011, I estimate that there were more African residents than White residents from about 2014.

Map of the Johannesburg in 2011, showing the geography of black residents in the formerly whites-only neighbourhoods

The geography of black residents in the formerly whites-only neighbourhoods of Johannesburg, 2011 (cartography by Philip J. Stickler)

So what is happening here?

These long-term trends in racial residential desegregation can be explained by the:

  • Different population growth rates of the races
  • Opward mobility of Black residents into high-income middle-class jobs, and
  • General lack of resistance to desegregation by the apartheid-era government and White residents in general.

From 1991, all legal restrictions preventing Black people from living in formerly Whites-only residential areas were abolished, so the only substantial restriction was the formidable cost of housing. However, the growing size of the middle-income Black clerical, sales and service class and high-income Black middle class meant there were a significant number of Black residents willing and able to move to the formerly Whites-only neighbourhoods.

Understanding the trends

This growth of Black employees in middle- and high-income jobs needs to be understood in the context of the changing occupational structure of employment in greater Johannesburg. My research on employment trends from 1970 to 2011 shows that the labour market has changed dramatically since the height of the apartheid period.

In 1970, unemployment was very low and most workers had manual jobs, either as unskilled labourers, or as machine operators and on assembly lines. Forty years later, unemployment was extremely high, and most workers were employed in non-manual jobs, as middle-income clerks, sales and service workers, and as high-income, middle-class technicians, professionals and managers.

This changing labour market, which benefited better-educated workers and severely disadvantaged poorly-educated manual workers (who had not completed secondary school), also substantially changed the pattern of racial inequality.

For White workers it meant continued prosperity, with a low unemployment rate and over-representation in high-income, middle-class jobs. However, they were not the only group to benefit from the growth of non-manual, middle-income jobs and high-income middle-class jobs.

The growth of high-income, middle-class jobs far exceeded the supply met by the White workforce and so provided middle-class employment opportunities for many well-educated Black (mostly African) workers (Figure 3). Almost 90% of the roles in middle-class jobs between 1970 and 2011 were filled by Black workers, with their representation in middle-class employment growing from 11% in 1970, to 65% in 2011.

The same trend took place in middle-income clerical, services and sales occupations. These non-manual occupations grew more than other occupational groups, resulting in dramatic upward occupational mobility among better-educated Black workers.

By contrast, there was very little employment growth in low-income and middle-income manual jobs, in which mostly poorly-educated Black workers were employed. With growing numbers of Black workers failing to complete secondary school, this was an important cause of the extremely high levels of unemployment and poverty among low-skilled Black workers.

The changing racial composition of high-income, middle-class employment in Gauteng, 1970 to 2011

Note the results are subject to a standard error of the percentage estimate of between 0 and 0.53

An emerging Black middle class

The result of this growth of the Black middle class is best demonstrated in the most expensive neighbourhoods of the northern suburbs, where the occupational class composition of Black residents almost exactly matches that of White residents.In 2011, 60% of all employed White residents living in the main house were middle class. For Indian residents it was also 60%, for African residents 51% and for Coloured residents 49%.

The occupational class composition by race of employed residents in the formerly Whites-only northern suburbs, 2011 (Percentage Distributions)

Africans Coloureds Indians Whites All races All Blacks
Managers 18 17 25 26 23 20
Professionals 21 19 26 22 22 22
Technicians and associate professionals 11 14 10 12 12 11
Clerical support workers 16 25 19 18 18 18
Services and sales workers 19 13 14 15 16 17
Skilled agricultural, forestry and fishery workers 1 0 0 1 1 0
Craft and related trades workers 10 9 5 5 7 8
Plant and machine operators and assemblers 3 3 2 1 2 2
Elementary occupations 1 1 1 0 1 1
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100
All middle-class occupations 51 49 60 60 57 53

So, the dramatic increase in the size of the Black middle class substantially changed the racial composition of all the formerly Whites-only neighbourhoods – even those in the most expensive northern suburbs.

This growth of the Black middle class was partly due to the changing occupational structure of employment, which will be the topic of part two of my blog.

About the author

Owen Crankshaw is an Emeritus professor at the University of Cape Town. His research interests are in the fields of urban inequality and research methodology.

Owen Crankshaw's picture