South Africa (SA) is the southernmost nation on the African continent. It is bordered by Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, South Atlantic Ocean, and the Indian Ocean. With a population of more than 58 million people, South Africa is considered the 24th-most populous country in the world. Pretoria is the executive capital of South Africa, Bloemfontein is the judicial capital and Cape Town is the legislative capital. According to the World Bank, the country is an upper-middle-income economy as well as a newly industrialized nation. It has the second-largest economy and the seventh-greatest per capita income among all African countries.
Is South Africa a third world country? South Africa is considered both a third and first world country. Putting into consideration some parts of the country, especially those in the south, SA seems like a first-world nation. Such areas have world-class infrastructure and living standards of a developed country. However, things are different in the northern parts. These regions put SA in the third world country category, because of extreme poverty, insufficient basic amenities, and other unpleasant factors.
Despite of having one of the highest human development indexes in Africa, South Africa still experiences widespread poverty and inequality. About 0.25% of the population is unemployed and surviving on a maximum of $1.25 a day. Nevertheless, South Africa has the second-largest mixed economy in Africa and a relatively high GDP per capita when compared to other sub-Saharan African countries. An expat seeking to move to South Africa may ask, is South Africa a third world country? Why is it called a third world country? What factors make a nation the third world? In this post, I’ll answer those questions and more.
Why South Africa is Considered a Third World Country?
South Africa is currently among the countries grouped as third world or developing nations. Such economic classification takes into account a country’s economic status and other economic variables.
I find it surprising that South Africa is grouped as a third-world nation in spite of having abundant natural resources and goods. Also, don’t forget that the nation has made immense progress in its manufacturing and other industrial sectors. But, it still fails to rub shoulders with developed countries.
Now, possessing a few upscale citizens here and there cannot make a nation a developed one. Of course, some citizens of third world countries lead lives that are as comfortable as those of their counterparts living in developed nations.
So, why is SA considered a third world country despite the abundant resources it possesses? Note that the amount of resources a nation has is not the variable that establishes its status in the economy. Some countries possess little to no natural resources, but they belong to the first world or developed nation economic status.
For example, South Korea does not have any mineral resource, unlike South Africa and many other African nations with massive mineral wealth. South Korea falls into the first world category, because of its heavy investment in human capital development.
The economic status of South Africa is what makes it a third world nation. Similar to other nations in this group, SA has a considerable agrarian sector with a huge portion of the population engaging in subsistence agriculture.
A considerable number of South Africans living in rural regions lack some of life’s basic amenities. Additionally, the nation is battling with low productivity, insufficient clean water, high infant mortality and ailments.
Therefore, even if some parts of SA, like Cape Town and Johannesburg, appear well-developed with diverse industries and top-notch infrastructure, it’s not the case everywhere. Other sections of the nation remain backwards and contribute to South Africa’s third-world status.
What Factors Make A Nation A Third World?
The term “third world” is currently not in use anymore. It is frequently replaced by “developing country” (by the United Nations) or “low-income country” (by the World Bank). The term “emerging markets” is also used to refer to underdeveloped, developing and third world nations.
Regardless of the name, the fact remains that third world countries are lacking in multiple areas. And, they may take years to attain first-world or developed nation status. It takes nearly 25 years for a nation to move from the third world to the first world-class.
Here are the factors that make a nation the third world:
- Poverty: A huge portion of a country’s populace must be floundering in poverty to be declared a third world nation
- High Child Mortality: Child mortality in developed countries is lower (at six deaths per 1000 children) compared to that of third world nations (at 175 fatalities per 1000 children). The high child mortality rate in third world countries is caused by a weak healthcare framework.
- Education: Although most develop nations, such as South Korea, invest highly in education, most developing nations, especially SA, don’t pay much thought to the sector. The poor educational development in third world nations is caused by insufficient government education budgets, corruption, faulty governance and a high public debt profile. Unfortunately, most of the politicians in developing nations feel that educating citizens will make them hard to rule. Hence, they find it best to make sure that most of the populace stay illiterate. If the governments of these countries could put their selfish political ambitions aside and focus on the education sector, quick development would be possible. Like SA, most third world nations are blessed with a wealth of natural resources. However, they need to acknowledge that possessing numerous natural resources, but an educationally backward country deters economic progress.
- High Foreign Debt: Many third worlds or developing countries have high debt. For instance, South Africa’s government debt stood at $177,700,000,000 in September 2019.
- Less Technological Advancement: Most leaders in third world countries lack in forward-thinking and exposure to technology. They aren’t ready to take up the fast-paced life of the digital era. Such leaders do not realize the need to concentrate on technological modifications and fail to plan for the country’s long-term future, technology-wise. If the third world nations want to move forward, their leaders must adopt and invest in technology. And, model the technological advancement of other more developed countries.
- Vulnerability: Most countries belonging to the third world status rely too much on industrialized countries. And, due to their lacking technological and managerial abilities, many third world nations are taken advantage of by some of the industrialized countries.
The points above are the factors that define third world nations, of which SA belongs. But, it takes decades for a nation to advance from third to first-world status. However, given the resources and potential of South Africa, it is safe to say the nation will attain such a status as well.
If only the leaders and citizens can join forces, pinpoint the issues, and work toward attaining first world rating, everything would be better. Furthermore, successive governments should work according to the previous administration’s development strategies rather than forming completely new plans. That will help the nation to develop faster economically.
Inequality in South Africa is Fueling its Third World Status
Over 25 years have passed since SA abolished a racist regime that kept the nation’s black populace under the control of a superior white minority. However, although democracy has given all South Africans freedom, the lives of many citizens have not changed enough.
In spite of more than two decades of democracy, the World Bank reports that South Africa is still highly unequal in economic terms. The divide between the SA’s rich and poor is difficult to hide. On one side is Johannesburg’s Bloubusrand, a middle-class place with luxurious homes and pools. And, one on the other side is Kya Sands with an informal settlement structure.
In numerous ways, the apartheid legacy in South Africa continues to endure. Formerly disadvantaged citizens own fewer assets, possess fewer skills, have lower-incomes, and are likely to lack jobs. On the other hand, an elite, predominantly white minority still flourishes.
South Africa’s inequality is exacerbated by the government’s systemic failures. Not only is income inequality a concern, but also unfair access to opportunities and critical public services too. One would assume that with over twenty years into democracy, SA would have better reach to land, healthcare and ablution facilities. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
That is not to say the country’s leadership has not made substantial moves toward levelling the field. Access to essential services, like water, education, medical care and electricity has improved noticeably since the African National Congress (ANC) party came into power.
However, a fraction of the populace continues to enjoy the lion’s share of South Africa’s spoils whereas the remainder struggles.
The wealthiest households in the country are nearly ten times richer than the poor households. Numerous South Africans continue to go to bed hungry each day, and the highest poverty rates are among the black populace. The second-highest levels of property are among the country’s mixed-raced population.
The white people make up the largest portion of South Africa’s elite. And, they earn almost thrice the average wage of the black citizens, who make up three-quarters of the labour force.
Inequality levels in South Africa seem to be passed on from one generation to the next. The phenomenon is highly embedded and cannot change fast, but South Africans need to recognize the current situation if they want to move forward.
About the author: Marta Kovachek is the author of this article. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a master’s degree in Economics. Marta enjoys writing about the current economic situation and loves helping our readers to find their next "destination". From places to live to complex social and economic topics, we always enjoy Marta's work. Please contact us in case of any questions.