Helen Zille offers a choice. Give me a chance. Things can only improve, but I believe it is a matter of pride and resentment. Only when South Africa can truly let go of the past, can we move forward, and even prosper. But can they? Can we?
Today the square is named after Walter Sisulu, an ANC hero and mentor to Mr Mandela. It boasts shops, offices, a conference hall and a pricey hotel. As the birthplace of the new, inclusive South Africa, it has become a stop on the tourist trail. But just across the railway track, rickety shacks huddle together. The roads are rutted and muddy. Communal latrines stand useless, their doors open and rubbish piled inside. Next to them on the uneven ground wobbles a portable toilet, its door padlocked against vandals. A sludgy stream trickles past, fouled by children unable to find the key in time. Walter Sisulu Square is close by, but the aspirations of the Freedom Charter are nowhere to be seen.
And yet in other ways South Africa is in a worse state than at any point since 1994. In August police shot dead 34 miners on strike at a platinum mine near Marikana, in North West province. Since then wildcat strikes have broken out at other mines. Some operations have been suspended. Thousands of miners have been sacked. In September Moody’s, a credit agency, cut South Africa’s sovereign rating, citing the declining quality of the government, growing social stresses and worsening conditions for investment. Meanwhile, South Africa’s leaders have floundered. The ANC’s leadership is up for re-election at a party conference in December. South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, faces possible ejection as party leader—which would prevent him from being the ANC’s presidential candidate in elections in 2014.
The past two months’ industrial strife is about more than just pay or perks. The protests are a symptom of the deep malaise that has taken hold of South Africa. The ANC was dealt a bad hand in 1994, and it has played that hand badly. South Africa’s difficulties are now so entrenched that the ANC looks incapable of solving them.
The starkest measure of South Africa’s failure is the yawning gap between rich and poor. Under apartheid, such inequality was by design. Since apartheid came to an end, a tiny black elite has accrued great fortunes. But that has only widened the wealth gap. South Africa’s Gini coefficient—the best-known measure of inequality, in which 0 is the most equal and 1 the least—was 0.63 in 2009. In 1993 it was 0.59. After 18 years of full democracy, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world.
Nokubonga Ralayo, a 20-year-old university student from Khayelitsha, a vast black township on the edge of Cape Town, says success comes down to being able to afford a better school. “It is hard to escape your background when you are growing up,” she says. Three-quarters of white pupils complete the final year of high school, but only a third of black pupils.
Schools suffer from poor equipment. Only 20% have libraries, and only 7.5% actually have any books. Almost half of all schools rely on pit latrines instead of proper toilets. In July textbooks that pupils should have received in January were found tossed into rivers in an effort to hide the failure to deliver them.
The standard of teaching is low, too. Training is inadequate. South Africa needs 25,000 new teachers a year but only around 10,000 qualify. Maths and science teachers are in particularly short supply. Many arrive late to school and leave early, spending barely half their allotted time in class. Many fail to turn up at all on Fridays. The teachers’ union is more concerned with protecting its members, even the incompetent ones, than with training them. There is little political will when it comes to improving education and few repercussions when those in charge perform badly.
Chronically poor education means that thousands of jobs go unfilled. Almost half the 95,000 or so nursing jobs in the public sector are vacant, according to the South African Institute of Race Relations. Meanwhile, official unemployment is about 25% and the real figure nearer 40%. (In 1994 unemployment was 20%.) Unequal education creates unequal employment. The unemployment rate among blacks is 29%, compared with 6% for whites. Youth unemployment is over 50%. Young people who fail to find work by the age of 24 will probably never have a full-time formal job.
Skills shortages are a brake on growth and are just one reason why the country’s inclusion in the BRICS (albeit as an afterthought) looked incongruous. In September the Reserve Bank reckoned that South Africa’s growth rate for 2012 would be just 2.6%. Countries such as Nigeria and Angola have galloped ahead in recent years, with growth pushing 10%, albeit from a lower base. The economy, much smaller than that of the other BRICS, is likely to be toppled from its spot as Africa’s biggest by Nigeria’s in the next decade.
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