15 years after apartheid, Sth Africa at a crossroads

It’s easy to look around this proud, polyglot city and think that the favorite slogan of the new South Africa – a “Rainbow Nation” of races striving together for prosperity – is becoming a reality.

Blacks and whites mingle in buzzing bars and restaurants, in state-of-the-art business parks and shopping malls, and in tree-lined suburbs that recall Southern California more than southern Africa. A blossoming black middle class fills the boardrooms and back offices of a diverse economy that’s the engine and envy of the continent.

In the 15 years since Nelson Mandela won the first democratic elections here, finally closing the book on four decades of white apartheid rule, a lot has gone right with South Africa. Yet days before a new election, a deep malaise has taken hold, a creeping fear that the next decade and a half won’t be as good as the first was.

For months, the news pages have been dominated by stories about political corruption, intimidation and back-room dealing at the highest levels of the African National Congress, the party that led the fight against apartheid and has controlled the government ever since. The man who figures to become president after the April 22 elections, Jacob Zuma, had a long-running bribery case against him suddenly dropped this month on legal technicalities that many suspect were the result of political pressure.

In low-income black townships, residents complain that while the leaders of the liberation struggle are getting rich running the new South Africa, they’re still spinning their wheels in the old one – a place of deprivation where electricity, clean water, affordable homes and decent schools remain out of reach.

Among the still-prosperous white minority, worries about crime and corruption are driving many young, educated people overseas, leaving the country short of doctors engineers and other skilled professionals.

Since capturing the world’s imagination in 1994, this country has seen itself as exceptional, an African oasis. Now, for the first time, polls show that a plurality of people thinks the country is headed in the wrong direction.

“People thought this was not Africa,” said Simanga Khumalo, a professor of religion who grew up in the black township of Soweto in the 1970s, when it was a cauldron of anti-apartheid resistance.

“People looked at our economy and businesses, and we look like an advanced society. But this is Africa. We are no different. Our leaders also love power.”

In many ways, class barriers have replaced the old racial divisions. Despite robust economic growth under former President Thabo Mbeki, unemployment has risen to 38 percent from 32 percent in 1994. The number of jobless has doubled. Despite one of the largest welfare systems in the world, more than half of blacks live below the poverty line, compared with about 10 percent of the rest of the country.

In Alexandra township, just outside Johannesburg, Joyce Mlambo can recall the euphoria of 1994, when she stood in line for hours to vote ANC and danced with her neighbors late into the night after the results were announced. Mlambo, now 50, expected that a black-led government would elevate her from the one-room shack where she raised seven children.

Today, she still earns $2 a day at her termite-eaten fruit stall and survives on welfare payments.

“Initially, I was really happy. We all were happy,” Mlambo said, wiping her rough hands on her secondhand T-shirt. “Nothing is happening for us here. I feel betrayed.”

When she rides the bus into Johannesburg, through a row of ritzy suburbs, she sees a class of people who look like her from the neck up, but who wear smart clothes, shiny shoes and expensive-looking watches.

“I don’t relate to those people,” Mlambo grunted.

The “black diamonds” – the fast-growing black middle class – comprises 6 percent of the country but more than a quarter of its buying power. Grants and government loans have helped many launch new businesses, while affirmative action has dramatically diversified once lily-white corporate ranks.

A loan helped Ndumi Medupe, armed only with a business plan, start a consulting firm in 2007. Now she has 20 employees, offices in a tree-lined business park and clients spread across a range of government departments.

Medupe grew up in a small eastern village and went to college on loans. Now she and her husband live in a gated home in a quiet suburb. Their two children, 13 and 5, “live in a different world.”

But she only has to look at the children’s private schools, where three-quarters of their classmates are white, to be reminded that not everyone is thriving in the new South Africa.

“From our point of view, the Rainbow Nation exists,” Medupe said, invoking, as people here often do, the term coined by Nobel Prize-winning Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe the dream of an integrated South Africa.

“For someone at the bottom of the ladder … things haven’t changed much from the apartheid years.”

Still, polls predict a comfortable ANC victory in a field that includes several smaller parties, although it likely will fall short of the 70 percent it won in 2004. Speaking last month at a business breakfast, Zuma acknowledged the inequities but said the country remained “fiercely protective” of the party.

“Support for the ANC among South Africans is as big and as enthusiastic as ever,” he said.

For those who fear for South Africa, Zuma is the great bogeyman. The 67-year-old head of the ANC has polarized the nation like no politician before him.

Supporters think the former liberation fighter is a strong leader in the mold of a Zulu tribal patriarch (which he is, reportedly keeping four wives) and the corruption case against him, which dated to a multibillion-dollar arms deal in the 1990s, was plotted by his political enemies.

To critics, he’s an unschooled rabble-rouser with troubling views on women’s rights, the rule of law and AIDS. In 2006, during a trial in which he was acquitted of raping a woman he knew to be HIV-positive, he cast himself in the role of a traditional Zulu male, for whom it was required to have sex with a woman if she came before him wearing a skirt.

A former ANC parliamentarian, Andrew Feinstein, who resigned in 2001 over the party’s failure to probe the arms deal, thinks the dismissal of the Zuma bribery case has irreversibly damaged South Africa’s democratic credentials and could scare off foreign investors.

“All of these things make me very alarmed about the rule of law in the country,” Feinstein said. “If the nature of South African democracy is that big bosses can get away with anything, people feel there is no real equality before the law.”

There’s more and more hand-wringing among South African whites.

In rural areas, farmers are troubled by high crime rates and a lack of government support. In cities, resentment at affirmative-action policies and the attraction of better-paying jobs abroad have lured thousands of professionals in their late 20s and early 30s to places such as Australia and Great Britain.

The fears run so high that one of the best-selling local books last year was called “Don’t Panic!” – a plea to South Africans to stay and help build their nation. It began as an e-mail to employees from Alan Knott-Craig, head of an Internet firm that circulated to South Africans around the globe and eventually became a book.

In an interview, Knott-Craig said that crime and political instability are constant concerns. But the global economic slowdown has forced many young South Africans to rethink moving abroad, and he noted that Zuma has pledged to reduce crime, which affects South Africans of all races.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty. Jacob Zuma has quite a bad reputation,” he said. But, ever the optimist, he quickly added: “I personally feel we’ll be pleasantly surprised.

“Anyone with a brain must be very happy with our political situation. Our presidents leave office peacefully – they don’t stay for 20 years, or change the constitution or get the army to protect them. It’s a true democracy. The big thing we have lacked since Mandela is true leadership.”

? 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.