Opportunity Costs

“Poverty circumscribes the potential of those who should be active participants in the endogenous growth of the South African economy.”

by Hayley Holness
As I stare blankly out of the large window that dominates the wall on my left, a plump rooster struts across the burnt grass. Everything I have seen since arriving to South Africa intrigues me. I am currently standing uncomfortably in a tiny yet impeccably clean dining room. A young woman about my age is sitting down at a mahogany table feeding her infant son. Her name is Gloria Ramasela Sebone and she dreams of one day working as a chemical engineer. Despite her exceptional drive and passing marks on the national standardized exam required for admission to a university in South Africa, she is still unable to receive a post-secondary education. Her family’s lack of financial resources places the $400 tuition well beyond reach. Her father, Benedict Sebone, is ill and out of work so she helps to  support her family however she can. Still, she dreams of one day continuing her education.
At the end of July, the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Foundation sent four students from Barnard College including me, Hayley Holness, to South Africa to assist Marsha Coleman-Adebayo in the research of several miners’ claims of vanadium poisoning. Vanadium is an inorganic compound used to fortify steel and has been linked to various pulmonary disorders. A group of South African miners living in a town called Brits have organized to fight the vanadium mining company Vametco, a vanadium mining company, owned by Strategic Minerals Corporation, an American company based in Danbury, Connecticut. While employed by Vametco, these miners allege that the company exposed them to hazardous conditions that eventually left them suffering from ailments ranging from chronic bronchitis, asthma, kidney failure to sexual dysfunctions.
Despite the dangerous working conditions, every day there are men waiting outside the factory hoping to find employment. The level of unemployment in South Africa is desperately high and therefore multinational corporations can readily exploit workers in this labor surplus economy. Benedict is one of these miners. After falling ill, Benedict, like the other miners, lost his job. Benedict was replaceable as a laborer and therefore Vametco treated him as if he were disposable.
The desire to attract foreign invest-ment to South Africa has resulted in a dearth of labor laws protecting work-ers’ rights. President Mbeki hopes that the capital investment multinational mining companies provide will lead to sustained economic growth. Eventually as more jobs are created the position of workers vis-à-vis their employers will improve. In the long term, Mbeki believes this will lead to higher wages, safer working conditions, and other benefits enjoyed by workers in industrialized nations.
However, in the interim an entire generation of bright and capable young people languish. Poverty circumscribes the potential of those who should be active participants in the endogenous growth of the South African economy. Without the means to educate themselves, future South African scientists, entrepreneurs and scholars will struggle to emerge. South Africa will have difficulty sustaining any economic development it can achieve without a skilled labor force. What the future of South Africa needs is an investment in human capital coupled with other efforts toward development.
As a young woman who has been able to seize every opportunity toexplore her potential, the tragedy of Benedict’s daughter’s circumstances is particularly poignant. She is my age and shares my drive and were it not for the capricious whims of fate our positions could easily be reversed.

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