Barack Obama’s Visit Finds South Africa at Crossroads

Barack Obama is making his first trip to South Africa as U.S. president at a time when the nation’s mood is a far cry from the democratic triumph of its emergence from white-minority rule almost 20 years ago.

Since multiracial elections brought Nelson Mandela to power in 1994, progress has been mixed. While discriminatory laws have been scrapped and millions of people have received housing, water and electricity, unemployment is 25 percent, shanty towns are wracked by protests and unrest at mines has claimed more than 50 lives since the start of last year. President Jacob Zuma is also dogged by corruption scandals and his ruling African National Congress gripped by infighting.

“South Africa is really at a crossroads in its political life,” Mzukisi Qobo, a politics lecturer at the University of Pretoria, said in a June 24 interview. “There is a loss of innocence about our place in the world and who we are as a people. We no longer take it for granted that things are just going to go smoothly because we are the country of Nelson Mandela.”

Post-apartheid euphoria has ebbed along with Mandela’s health. The 94-year-old, who served a single five-year term, was admitted to a Pretoria hospital on June 8 with a lung infection. The presidency says his condition is now critical. Zuma canceled a trip to neighboring Mozambique after visiting Mandela in the hospital late yesterday, his office said in an e-mailed statement.

Robben Island

Obama, who visited South Africa in 2006 when he was an Illinois senator, will travel to Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town on the second leg of a three-nation African tour, which began yesterday in Senegal and ends in Tanzania. He’s scheduled to meet Zuma and Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, give a public lecture and visit Robben Island, where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison for trying to topple the apartheid state.

Obama described Mandela as a “personal hero,” who demonstrated what is possible in the world.

“I don’t think I’m unique in this regard,” Obama told reporters in Dakar. “He’s a hero for the world. His legacy is one that will linger on for the ages.”

Zuma has played up democratic South Africa’s achievements ahead of the visit: the economy has expanded 83 percent since 1994; per-capita income has risen 40 percent after accounting for inflation; total employment has risen by 3.5 million; and welfare grants now reach about 16 million people, up from 2.5 million.

“South Africa is a much better place than it was before 1994, and the last five years have pushed that change forward,” Zuma told reporters in Johannesburg June 24. “The achievements of the country and the ANC government do not obtain the necessary exposure.”

Record Protests

Still, as many as 10 million people lack formal housing and 2.3 million households don’t have proper toilets. Half of all children who start school drop out before completing the 12-year curriculum.

Disenchantment with the ANC-led government is rising. There were a record 173 protests by poor, black township residents over a lack of housing and basic services last year, according to Johannesburg-based research group Municipal IQ.

“The transformation of South Africa from apartheid to a growing democracy is a big deal, but South Africa has some unfinished business,” U.S. civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson said in a June 21 telephone interview.

Zuma has been personally tainted by a series of scandals, including fathering an illegitimate child with a friend’s daughter and a government decision to spend more than $20 million upgrading security for his rural homestead.

Income Inequalities

He drew criticism after an Indian family, who employ one of his four wives and count themselves as his friends, secured permission to land a plane carrying wedding guests at an air force base near Pretoria. Zuma laid the blame for the incident on state officials, while denying any personal involvement.

The government has also made little progress in narrowing apartheid-era income inequalities. A 2011 census shows black citizens, who account for 79 percent of the population of 53 million, on average earn a sixth of what whites do, and 1.9 million households have no income.

“We have made great advances in areas of human rights, civil liberties and welfare payments, but have left our economy little changed,” Zwelinzima Vavi, leader of the 2.2 million-member Congress of South African Trade Unions, an ANC ally, said in a June 24 speech in the northern town of Polokwane. “A small, ultra-rich, still mainly white and male elite owns and controls all the most powerful industrial and financial companies.”

Protesters Killed

The Geneva-based World Economic Forum ranks South Africa’s labor relations as the worst of 144 countries. Recent mine violence peaked when police killed 34 protesters at Lonmin Plc’s Marikana platinum mine in August last year.

The unrest shaved 0.5 percentage point off gross domestic product last year and a further 0.3 percentage point this year, according to the National Treasury, compounding the difficulties the government faces in seeking to expand the economy in the face of a global slowdown. The Treasury forecasts 2.6 percent growth this year, less than half the 7 percent the government is targeting to cut the unemployment rate to 14 percent by 2020.

Concern about social stability and the government’s ability to rein in its budget deficit contributed to Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings downgrading South African debt since September. The rand has also taken a hammering, declining 15 percent against the dollar since the start of the year, the worst performer of 16 major currencies monitored by Bloomberg.

Zuma’s Failings

Just how badly Zuma’s and the government’s failings have hurt the ANC will be tested in the nation’s fifth post-apartheid national elections next year. The party has won more than 60 percent support in every poll since 1994, and secured 66 percent backing in the last national vote in 2009, when Zuma took power.

“The ANC seems to have reached the end of its political life with respect to the kind of ideas that are required to take the country to the next level,” said Qobo, the politics lecturer. “The party has lost the kind of moral authority and intellectual stature that was associated with the era of Nelson Mandela.”

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