South Africa is in the middle of a period of political and economic unrest unlike anything the country has experienced since the end of apartheid in 1994. In March 2015, students at the University of Cape Town launched the #Rhodesmustfall campaign, aimed at bringing down a statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Since then, students have regularly stormed the nation’s universities, labor unions have held strikes, and populist social movements have taken to the streets. The protesters have called for wholesale reform of the country’s economy and directly challenged the ruling African National Congress. And the ANC itself is in crisis, divided between supporters and detractors of South African President Jacob Zuma. On March 31, the country’s highest court ruled that Zuma had failed to uphold the constitution when he ignored a state order to repay government funds used in a $23 million upgrade to his private residence at Nkandla in KwaZulu Natal. And on April 29, the High Court in Pretoria ruled that the former head of the National Prosecuting Authority, Mokotedi Mpshe, had acted irrationally when he had dropped corruption charges against Zuma in 2009. Although the opposition failed in its bid to impeach Zuma, the National Assembly remains fractious and divided. The Nkandla revelations and growing dissatisfaction with Zuma have sparked broader protests about poor living standards, low economic growth, high unemployment, and political stagnation.
The roots of the current crisis lie in the country’s tortured past. Since the end of apartheid, the number of people who live in absolute poverty has fallen, and access to and quality of services has improved, but unemployment, crime, and housing remain the top three concerns of South Africans, as they have been since the mid-1990s. In fact, the gap between rich and poor has widened: South Africa’s Gini coefficient, a measure of economic inequality ranging from 0 (perfect equality) to 1 (perfect inequality), increased from 0.62 in 2008 to 0.70 in 2013; by contrast, Brazil’s has fallen from 0.55 in 2009 to 0.53 in 2013. For all of those
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