The issues South Africa faces would be serious enough at any time, but will be especially important between now and the general election later this year

Even as Nelson Mandela’s body lay in state in the Union Buildings in Pretoria in December 2013, the same question that had been, predictably, asked before he stepped down from his presidency in 1999 — he was one of the few African leaders to leave voluntarily at the end of his term — namely, that of what is to follow, presses as urgently now as it did then. Since 1999 too, much has emerged to cause concern over the possible if not likely loss of what had seemed a wonderful inheritance.

When the new South Africa was created in 1994, it looked perfectly placed to build on the single mightiest achievement all its people shared, the transition which took place — almost unbelievably without mass racial bloodshed — from the apartheid regime, much of the brutality of which may never be fully known, to a contemporary republic which looked almost blessed, with a largely benevolent climate, abundant natural resources, and a constitution meticulously drafted in the light of lessons from many other countries’ constitutions. Suddenly, a state which had long claimed to be an outpost of anti-communism and had therefore been propped up by the West, which had too often looked the other way while apartheid’s horrors continued, was a beacon of hope for hundreds of millions around the world.

Today, that kind of hope has been tempered, and even badly tarnished, by the kinds of problems that arise in any contemporary democracy, and by continuing and huge inequalities, as well as severe unemployment across the country. These problems are further compounded by cronyism, corruption and nepotism at many levels of the ruling African National Congress, the ANC.

Inequality and racial divide

Inequality, dangerously, continues to be strongly correlated with the old racial divide. Among black households, incomes have risen by an average of nearly 170 per cent in the last decade, but they remain at about one sixth the incomes of white households, despite the emergence of a black middle class and several successful black-owned businesses; the top five per cent of all earners get 30 times more than the bottom five per cent. The extent of inequality, for its part, has much to do with unemployment among South Africa’s majority black population, and particularly among the young; nationally, 3.3 million of the 10.4 million aged between 15 and 24 are not in education, employment or training.

State of the ANC

Although the institutions of the new state have been designed with great care by leaders who often came from the poorest classes themselves, implementation has been beset by problems within the ANC. In addition, bringing the corrupt to book is very difficult because the ANC leadership seem set in the attitudes they developed in their long battle against apartheid, and now close ranks whenever problems are raised.

Those attitudes have had other serious consequences as well. The leaders of the new state, including Mandela, were inexperienced in international economic negotiations. With the collapse of the Soviet Union had also lost one of their models for political economy, and, intimidated by the western triumphalism of the day, they were easy prey for U.S.-supported bodies like the International Monetary Fund and for South African plutocrats like Harry Oppenheimer, who had opposed apartheid on the grounds that it made for inefficiencies within capitalism. Some who took part in the negotiations now bitterly regret the concessions they made, many of which were preconditions for international loans. The new leaders even agreed to repay $25 billion in debts incurred by the predecessor state. In the two decades since then, the policies forced on the ANC have done much damage to the party’s reputation and to crucial services such as the now-privatised water supply in much of the country. Lender-enforced policies like cost recovery hit the poor hardest and in effect reinforce the divisions of old.

The South African Constitution, nevertheless, gives all 51 million citizens a right of access to sufficient food and water; these, in addition to other necessities such as housing, are subjects of a burgeoning jurisprudence in social and economic rights, on which the Constitutional Court often has to rule as issues arise in the urgent contexts of people’s everyday lives. The court itself may well be the country’s most respected institution; for example, one of its first decisions abolished the death penalty, and it has issued other landmark judgments such as the ruling that not employing people with HIV as flight attendants is unconstitutional.

Run-up to election

The issues South Africa faces would be serious enough at any time, but they will receive even more intense attention between now and the next general election, which is to be held between April and July 2014; all the provincial elections will also be held then, so the stakes will be even higher. The fully proportional electoral system for the national assembly restricts voters to choosing between lists chosen by the parties, so it is not even clear if the ANC’s 2009 vote share of 65.9 per cent will change.

The biggest blocks of votes are among black South Africans, and if opposition parties like the current second largest party, the Democratic Alliance, led by Helen Zille, are to make the gains they need then they must reach beyond white voters and the black middle classes. The same holds, for example, for the United Democratic Movement, founded by Bantu Holomisa after he was expelled from the ANC for accusing a senior official of corruption.

Both those parties, however, have a new challenge in the form of the Economic Freedom Fighters, a purportedly left party under the young and flamboyant ANC expellee Julius Malema. In addition, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), which is the largest union in the long-established Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is considering launching a trade union-based left party. That could well attract the disaffected left among the ANC’s supporters, and could also become the strongest electoral threat to Mr. Zuma and his followers. Whatever else, the passing of their giant poses South Africans many questions; failure to address those may not be an option, but one of Mandela’s legacies will be an immense amount of global goodwill towards them as they proceed.

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