SHORTLY AFTER THE fall of apartheid regime and the ascent of indigenous rule in South Africa, the attention of the world in general, and that of Africa in particular, was focused on South Africa. On one hand, there were great optimisms and expectations, particularly with the large-heartedness and magnanimity of Nelson Mandela, the first black president of the country. On the other, a new alternative was found in South Africa after the failure of Nigeria to consistently provide the appropriate leadership within the continent of Africa. While it could be argued that Mandela did not disappoint in providing that alternative, his insistence on single term presidency – despite all entreaties to persuade him to run, by those concerned about stability and sustainability – provided a fertile ground for internal agitation over succession for many ambitious followers within the family of the African National Congress (ANC), the biggest and ruling party at that time. The image cut out for South Africa could be discerned from the global awe-inspiring recognition accorded to Mandela after his presidency.
Thabo Mbeki, who first served with Frederik W. De Klerk in their capacities as deputy presidents, was later to become Mandela’s successor. Under Mbeki’s leadership South Africa had the longest period of sustained economic growth in the country’s history. This is debatable, however, as Mbeki’s boat was rocked from within the ANC ruling party, particularly during his second term in office, much to the detriment of South Africa. Mbeki’s good performance as president was overshadowed by the overbearing influence of ANC on government. The party, which was already under the control of Jacob Zuma, Mbeki political arch-rival, asked Mbeki to step down after a judge threw out the corruption, fraud and racketeering case against Zuma. Mbeki’s government was accused of political interference. The failure of ANC soon became obvious as the economy was not growing fast enough to lift the population out of abject poverty or to address the huge structural inequalities. Before stepping down in September 2008 – months ahead of the end of his second term – Mbeki admitted that his country still had economic, corruption and crime challenges to face in the future.
Zuma was popular, particularly with the Communist Party and trade unions, which provided him a ladder for his political ascent, relevance and influence. He fought hard to block state attempts to bring him before the courts to face multiple charges of corruption. His control of the alliances of the disgruntled propelled him to the presidency of the ANC in December 2007. His allies saw him as the champion of the poor and dispossessed. The case against him was thrown out in September 2006, although he was recharged him, but no ruling was made to establish his guilt or innocence. Partisan influences saved Zuma from justice as he could have faced at least 15 years in jail if convicted of accepting bribes from a company that got a contract in a multibillion-dollar arms deal. Many of his critics were apprehensive that his triumph foreshadowed the coming to power of barbarians carelessly determined to destroy all that was good about Mbeki. Despite his moral baggage, Zuma became president of South Africa. Given his educational background and moral records, it was not altogether surprising that he took South Africa on a downward path. He was a leader whose near decade in power divided Nelson Mandela’s post-apartheid ‘Rainbow Nation.’ The shadow of his corruption charges before he became president did not depart from him throughout his nine stormy years as president. Since becoming president in 2009, he has been associated with scandals. He was recently fighting the reinstatement of corruption charges that were dismissed before he became president over a 30 billion-rand – now estimated at $2.5 billion – government arms deal arranged in the late 1990s.
During his nearly nine years as president, tarnished by scandal, corruption and mismanagement, ANC officials had continually rallied behind him as their leader. In the end, his party turned against him. When the Zuma embarrassment for the ANC got to a crescendo, it had to order him to quit power, stating that his continued presence could “erode the renewed hope and confidence among South Africans.” But that erosion has already happened. It can only be wished that things don’t deteriorate further for South Africa, once seen as a beacon of hope for Africa during Mandela’s presidency. One newspaper’s headline summarised it thus: “Jacob Zuma’s Legacy Is a Weakened South Africa.” South Africa’s image plummeted under Zuma’s leadership. The country that had inspired the world with Mandela’s conciliatory disposition and peaceful co-existence, upon which Mbeki’s vision of an “African renaissance” was built, became known for corrupt leadership and many crises. According to Somadoda Fikeni, an independent political analyst and a former professor at the University of South Africa, “it was a period when South Africa, which was thought to be a shining example of the African continent, an economic powerhouse and also a vibrant democracy, was tested to the limit.”
South Africa moved up the ladder and became infamously first in many bad things. With an estimated 7.7 million people living with HIV, South Africa has the biggest HIV epidemic in the world. In a country with a population of 56 million inhabitants, statistics from UNAIDS on HIV/AIDS infection in South Africa as of 2019 showed that 7.5 million people live with HIV, with 19 per cent adult HIV prevalence. It means one fifth of the population between the age 14 to 49 is at risk. This portends the imminence of bleak demographic prospects for South Africa. Urbanisation is facing a major crisis in a country known to be at the forefront of urban development and growth and is contributing to the spread of HIV. South Africa is going through a difficult phase of nationhood. Housing for a good proportion of the population is both inadequate and not qualitative where any exists. “Mass resettlements of populations under apartheid, seasonal labour migrations, movements along major trade routes, refugees fleeing war in other parts of Africa, and, since 1990, return of political exiles and liberation armies have all contributed to the spread of infections,” observed one source. Sexual violence – very common in South Africa – has been associated with HIV transmission and is linked with common forms of social and political violence that have long been part of the everyday life of townships and inner city areas.
In 2019, no fewer than 200,000 people were exposed to new HIV infections, with 72,000 AIDS-related deaths estimated. The economic costs of putting 71 per cent of exposed adults and 47 per cent of exposed children under anti-retroviral drugs could be enormous. Available records show that South Africa has the world’s largest antiretroviral treatment (ART) programme. This has been largely financed from the country’s own domestic resources. In 2017 alone, the South Africa invested more than $1.54 billion annually to run its HIV programmes – a great economic drain indeed. It has gone so bad that HIV prevalence among the general population is high at 20.4 per cent, meaning that one quarter of the total population is infected, with even higher prevalence among homosexuals, transgender women, sex workers and people who inject drug. Within the southern Africa region, South Africa accounts for a third of all new HIV infections.
In South Africa, particularly the urban centres, wealth exists side-by-side with poverty in the same neighbourhood. With the highest Gini coefficient in the world, South Africa easily carries the trophy of the world’s most unequal country, deemed so by the World Bank in its 2018 report estimating that the top 10 per cent owned 70 per cent of the nation’s assets. The same World Bank, in 2019, announced that, despite 25 years of democracy then, South Africa remained the most economically unequal country in the world. Violent crimes have become intractable in South Africa. Although the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions of 2020 led to a reduction of criminal offences committed, crime and violence levels in South Africa are reportedly rising again rising. Available police data has revealed that in March 2021, overall violent crime levels matched those in previous years, while the violent crime dropped by 37 per cent between April and June 2020.
It has been reported that, as the controls were eased, serious violent crime began to rise. This trend was predicted by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in June 2020 because the factors driving crime in South Africa were not being addressed. Crime levels have been attributed to poverty, problems with delivery of public services, and wealth disparity. According to the Institute for Security Studies, factors beyond poverty and inequality, particularly social stress from uncaring environments in early childhood and subsequent lack of guardianship also contribute to crime. The high crime rates, recidivism and overburdened criminal justice system in South Africa have been described as a crisis, which requires a radical rethink. Official records have shown that, from 1991 to 2016, more than 513,000 people have been murdered in South Africa. In 2016 alone, 19,016 murders happened in South Africa, compared to eastern Germany, with only 87. It means there is a frequency of 34.1 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in South Africa.
South Africa is grappling with high and worrisome unemployment rate. The unemployment report released in June 2021 showed that South Africa’s unemployment rate rose to a new record high of 32.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2021, up from 32.5 per cent in the final quarter of 2020. The rate was considered the highest since the quarterly labour force survey began in 2008. This means that over one-third of South African employable adults are unable to find any job at all or are not on consistent income based on any form of employment. The nexus between unemployment, violence and crime can therefore be understood. The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed untold devastation on South Africa, with 2.57 million cases and 76,247 deaths as of August 2021, easily the highest recorded in Africa. Again, poverty, slums and poor hygiene and absence of compliance with protocols are assumed to have greatly contributed to this sad reality.
Slums and shanty towns have been part of urban South Africa since the apartheid years. With the apartheid gone, the problems remain and seem to be escalating. Soweto, derived from an acronym “South-Western Townships,” is an urban complex in Gauteng province, South Africa, originally set aside by the South African white government for residence by Blacks, adjoining the city of Johannesburg on the southwest. . Soweto remains South Africa’s largest black urban complex. The ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor has contributed to a very disproportionate distribution of income and wealth within the country. Over the past decade, the number of slum dwellers in South Africa has increased by a record 55 per cent as social infrastructure, economic opportunities and public facilities are often deficient. Sudden inundations of flooding have worsened the situation over the years as more informal housing increases, becoming even more vulnerable.
South Africa’s GDP ranking has dropped to the third place after Nigeria and Egypt. South Africa’s 2021 estimate of GDP is $748 billion is rated the 32nd place. A lack of structural transformation in South Africa already put the country in a precarious economic position even before the COVID-19 pandemic. The xenophobic riots of September 2019 in Johannesburg have sent some unmistakable messages to other Africans: South Africa is not your Eldorado. It is a country in turmoil, desperately in need of saviour if Africa’s future and fortune are to remain assured.