In late November, at a high-level meeting of South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC), a senior strategist named Joel Netshitenzhe delivered a blistering assessment of the state of his country. In a confidential document, Netshitenzhe warned that crime had become a "scourge," HIV was exacting a "devastating" toll, income equality was worsening and millions of South Africans remained mired in poverty.
True, in the 13 years since the country emerged peacefully from the grip of apartheid--one of the most inspiring episodes of the 1990s—its government had boosted the economy, turning it into an attractive emerging market; promoted racial reconciliation; prevented massive brain drain and helped rebuild this deeply scarred society. But the country nonetheless faces a profound crisis. "The issues may be uncomfortable to entertain," Netshitenzhe wrote. "But we cannot avoid dealing with them."
He was right. Many South Africans have started to feel that their country—recently an exemplar of democracy and enlightened leadership--is gradually tilting in the wrong direction. During the 1990s, the nation's AIDS epidemic was serious but no worse than that suffered by much of Africa. The same for violent crime. Today the AIDS crisis—which kills upwards of 900 South Africans a day—has become one of the world's worst. And crime is so bad that South Africa is starting to resemble Sierra Leone or Colombia. In fact, the country suffered more violent deaths per capita in 2007 than Afghanistan—the supposed front line in the war on terror.
There's a pervading sense, moreover, that the benefits of democracy have not flowed freely enough. Despite economic growth, income inequality among blacks, especially, is getting worse. So is corruption. And President Thabo Mbeki—who is required to step down in 2009—has grown increasingly authoritarian. As a result, as the ANC picked Jacob Zuma over Mbeki to as its next leader (a position that makes him a frontrunner to become president) many here were grappling with a troubling question: has South Africa fallen prey to the same malaise that has brought down so many independent African states? "There is a moment when many African liberation movements stumble," says William Gumede, a political analyst and author of a forthcoming book on the ANC. For South Africa, that moment seems to have arrived. "There is a sense that something uncontrollable is happening," Gumede says.
The roots of this unease can be traced back to the ANC, which helped win the country its freedom in 1994 and has governed it ever since. For generations after its founding in 1912, the ANC stood out as virtually the only African liberation movement that was progressive, tolerant of dissent and relatively democratic and uncorrupt. Today, however, the movement's leading lights--the generation that led it from prison cells on Robben Island and exile in Zambia and England--are slowly disappearing. Inspirational figures such as Nelson Mandela and Mac Maharaj have retired, while others, like Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, have died. "It is a massive change," says Gumede. "There is real panic inside the ANC about what is happening in the party and in South Africa."
No wonder. With the elders' passing, the core values that shaped half a century of revolutionary struggle are being replaced by petty politics and personal agendas. Bad management at home has tarnished the country's image, and the moral high ground the ANC once enjoyed abroad has been steadily eroded by its baffling tolerance for oppressive regimes in Zimbabwe, Sudan and Burma. "What an awful blot on our copybook," Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel laureate and outspoken figure in the anti-apartheid struggle, said recently of the government's treatment of Zimbabwe. "Do we really care about human rights? Do we care that fellow Africans are being treated like rubbish, almost worse than they were treated by rabid racists?"
Increasingly, Pretoria's answer seems to be no. Meanwhile, corruption—that African scourge—has grown noticeably worse. Allegations of profit-making now reach all the way to the top; though he vehemently denied the charges, the country's chief cop, Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi, has been tarnished by a bribery scandal, as have Mbeki and Zuma. "A lot of people are just absolutely shattered by what the ANC has become," says Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC parliamentarian who quit the party after his corruption probes were shut down and who explored the graft allegations in a recent book.
But the problems go well beyond the ANC. Consider the economy. Postliberation South Africa has made great strides: a decade-long boom has lifted millions out of poverty, and with growth predicted to hit 5 percent next year, this progress seems set to continue. Yet according to the World Bank, South Africa now ranks as one of the world's most unequal societies—and things are getting worse. Between 1975 and 2005, wealth disparities nearly doubled. The economic divide between whites and blacks has narrowed, and "within the black community, there is a group that is better off than during apartheid," says economist Jac Laubscher. "But there is an even larger group that's worse off than before." According to a study conducted last in 2006 by the Institute for Race Relations, the poorest 10 percent of South Africans now get the same share of the national income as they did in 1993, the year before apartheid ended. And the number living on less than $1 a day has grown from 1.9 million in 1996 to 4.2 million in 2006. "We have got a crisis," says Adam Habib, deputy vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. Indeed, waves of angry protests calling for better services and greater opportunities swept the country in 2007.
Also troubling is the crime epidemic. Antony Altbeker, a criminologist who has spent years studying the fault lines in South African society, estimates that the country has become one of the world's five most violent places; it has eight times more murders a day than the United States (which is nearly seven times its size). The mayhem isn't limited to the poor: in June, five international tourist groups were robbed, and thugs ambushed South Africa's U.N. ambassador. Diplomats from the Ethiopian, French, Gabonese, Ghanaian, Pakistani and Thai missions have also been assaulted over the last six months.
Still, it's the marginalized who generally suffer the worst. The country is now enduring a plague of sexual assaults. "When victims come into our hospital, we don't even ask if they've been raped anymore," laments the director of one Cape Town hospital. "It's always a gang rape now, so we ask how many men they were raped by." As Altbeker describes the situation, "Violence [has] entered the DNA of our national culture and has reproduced itself there." Years of repression, vast inequality and widespread alcoholism have combined with lack of faith in the government to produce a deadly state of affairs.
And then there's AIDS, which perhaps best symbolizes the government's neglectful approach. For Mbeki's entire first term, which lasted until 2004, the president—who has persistently cast doubt on the link between HIV and AIDS—refused to authorize the delivery of antiretroviral medication by the public-health system. Recently, under intense pressure, Pretoria has improved its policies somewhat, formulating a national action plan that coordinates the delivery of medicine. But that didn't stop Mbeki from firing Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, South Africa's popular and effective deputy Health minister, last summer, or from renewing his support for her controversial boss, Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang—who has publicly advocated beetroot and African potatoes as a cure for the disease. No surprise that South Africa now has about 5.5 million people living with HIV (according to the United Nations) and an adult prevalence rate of 19 percent.
Unfortunately for South Africans, December's leadership battle offered little hope that things will improve. Once Mbeki's protégé, Zuma was fired by the president in June 2005 over corruption charges that remain outstanding. Yet these didn't hurt Zuma's popularity; nor did an indictment for rape (he escaped conviction). That's all cause for concern. Mbeki's tenure has been problematic, but Zuma is a poorly educated populist who many critics fear will drag down South Africa's economy and further hurt its image (this is a man who once famously brushed off concerns about AIDS transmission by saying he took a cold shower after having sex with an HIV-positive woman).
Zuma's backers say he's been unfairly maligned, and that he couldn't make drastic changes even if he wanted to, as he will be hemmed in by the party apparatus. Others are optimistic that all the tumult could lead to improvements. Ayanda Dlodlo, who heads a group of liberation-era ANC veterans, says that the country's downward spiral has inspired the surviving graybeards to re-engage. "The sense of sacrifice is still there," she says. "All the veterans have is the ANC, and they would be loath to see South Africa degenerate into a basket case."
Indeed, veterans' groups have already begun reactivating their cells—only this time in the interests of civil society. Old party members have advocated establishing "street committees," much like those used during the anti-apartheid struggle, to help police against crime. Similar measures are being discussed to attack AIDS, corruption and poverty. Meanwhile, according to the political analyst Gumede, the specter of Zimbabwe's implosion could serve as a cautionary lesson for South Africa's leaders.
Should they commit to turning the country around, South Africa has huge advantages over its neighbors, such as an educated population, a relatively good infrastructure and clear civilian control of the military. In recent months, moreover, the government has extended grants to thousands of the poor to help close the income gap. Still, South Africa's leaders must focus their efforts on actually governing if things are to improve. For too long, politicians here have failed to take on the boring but critical work of running the country, says ANC veteran Maharaj. Even the wish that the elders would return and take charge is a way of avoiding "responsibility for the problems of today," he says. Still, the old struggles are over, he argues; good government must now become the ANC's focus. That's something South Africa's old leaders clearly understood. Let's hope their heirs finally get the message.