Five years ago, the West cheered the fall of white supremacist rule in South Africa. Many assumed that a saintly Nelson Mandela would preside over a new era of racial harmony and economic prosperity that would heal apartheid's wounds. Would that it were so. The new South Africa that Mandela has bequeathed to Thabo Mbeki is still, alas, beset with many serious problems.

On June 2, 1999, the African National Congress (ANC) won 66 percent of the vote in South Africa's second nonracial election. Two weeks later, Mbeki was sworn in as South Africa's second democratically elected president. Mbeki's election was a reminder that a democratic constitutional and legal order is taking root in South Africa. Its new constitution is an elaborate, progressive document that bans discrimination on grounds of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, culture, or sexual orientation. Even otherwise truculent political parties proclaim their respect for the constitution, and there is now a Constitutional Court committed to upholding it. Under Mandela, Parliament purged the statute book of the ugly mass of discriminatory legislation central to apartheid. The Mandela government gave high priority to improving the impoverished black masses' quality of life and appointed unprecedented numbers of women to political office. South Africa has a free and vigorous press that does not hesitate to expose the country's problems and denounce politicians' errors, although it is generally careful to support the government's main goals. Moreover, after being treated as a pariah during the apartheid era, South Africa has finally rejoined the British Commonwealth and become an active player in peacekeeping diplomacy in tropical Africa.

The bad old days of apartheid are gone, and good riddance. Thousands of South Africans of all colors and classes are now dedicated to the success of the new South Africa and spend their lives working for a healthy outcome as the country moves away from its racist past. But they confront extremely formidable obstacles, which are the product of a complex blend of historical and contemporary factors. Colonialism and the horrors of apartheid have left a deep impression on all South Africans and have molded all South African institutions. But those effects weaken as time goes by. Increasingly, those living in the new South Africa determine the country's destiny. For years to come, people will argue about the extent of apartheid's responsibility for South Africa's ongoing woes, just as they argue about the extent of colonialism's responsibility for conditions in tropical Africa. But whatever the outcome of that debate, Mbeki today faces an uphill climb.


The Mandela government sought to create a "rainbow nation" from South Africa's multicultural components. To prevent resistance to majority rule and promote racial harmony, a magnanimous Mandela himself laid great emphasis on reconciling whites to the new order. He cheered for the largely white South African rugby team and wore its jersey, even though most blacks had previously boycotted international sports events or rooted for the foreign side; he paid a courtesy visit to the aged widow of Hendrik F. Verwoerd, the primary architect of apartheid; and he entertained his favorite jailer from the notorious political prison on Robben Island. The white minority (some 10 percent of the population) still owns most of the land and dominates South African industry and commerce. Under the constitution's "sunset" clause, which guarantees apartheid-era state employees' jobs until they retire, whites still occupy many -- if not most -- senior and mid-level posts in the bureaucracy and the judiciary. The result is that although there is a constant stream of white emigration, most of those who remain in South Africa now acquiesce in their loss of power.

Even so, apartheid has left a tragic legacy. Racist thought is still pervasive and racist behavior frequent. With few exceptions, people still socialize with members of their own race and identify themselves primarily as white, black, colored (mixed-race), or Indian, as they did under apartheid. Moreover, whatever their rhetoric, the political parties remain predominantly racial or ethnic in membership: the ANC is overwhelmingly black, the Inkatha Freedom Party overwhelmingly Zulu, and the New National Party and Democratic Party overwhelmingly white and colored.

Since there seemed to be no rational alternative in the post-Cold War world, Mandela and his colleagues pursued conservative economic policies -- even though the ANC was formerly imbued with a strong dose of romantic socialism and the South African Communist Party is still an integral part of the ANC. The government opened South Africa to the global economy, hoping to attract massive foreign investment and develop export markets. But investment has fallen far short of what is needed. After years in isolation, South Africa's productivity is very low and its wages high compared to its developing-country competitors. Moreover, the gold-mining industry, the old standby of the South African economy, has declined as the price of gold has fallen and the cost of production in South Africa's aging deep-level mines has risen. The Asian financial crisis also had a serious spillover in South Africa because Japan, Malaysia, and other Asian countries had been major foreign investors. Consequently South Africa's economy has not grown substantially. The figures are disputed, but per capita GDP has certainly declined in the last five years, partly because the black population has been increasing quite rapidly. The value of the currency (the rand) has fallen precipitously. South Africa's foreign reserves are lower than those of 24 other emerging markets. Corporations such as Anglo-American and South African Breweries have transferred their headquarters to the United Kingdom, and many white, colored, and Indian professionals are emigrating, depriving South Africa of both capital and essential skills. In particular, emigration has decimated the medical profession. In response, South Africa has had to rely on doctors from Cuba, Russia, eastern Europe, and tropical Africa.

Meanwhile, ANC rule has dramatically changed South Africa's class structure. Whereas under apartheid social classes corresponded closely with race -- whites at the top, coloreds and Indians in the middle, blacks at the bottom -- there is now a small but powerful black elite that has been the main beneficiary of constitutional change. Cabinet ministers, members of parliament, judges, and members of the nine provincial governments receive salaries and perquisites that raise them far above the masses -- and that are generous even by the standards of the United States and other industrialized countries. Black entrepreneurs benefit -- sometimes unfairly -- from affirmative action and political contacts, receiving lucrative contracts for public works. White companies and corporations often find it expedient to place blacks in senior positions, including on their boards. Many members of this new black political and business elite have adopted extravagant lifestyles. They live in rich suburbs, wear flashy clothing, drive top-of-the-line BMWs (often acquired as official perks), and send their children to expensive private schools.

Meanwhile, the lower classes' living conditions have scarcely improved. Blacks continue to pour from the impoverished former "homelands" created under apartheid into shacks or tiny houses in the cities. Black unemployment is enormously high -- probably 40 percent or more. A government agency reports that if present trends continue, of the 250,000 people estimated to enter the job market every year, only 8,340 will find work in the formal sector of the economy. And although the government and private industry have made some progress in extending the supply of electricity, telephones, and clean water, vast numbers of blacks still lack all those facilities. Health care for blacks is poor, and aids is now having a catastrophic effect in South Africa, especially among the black masses. In July 1999, a report by Worldwatch, a U.S.-based conservation group, warned that the aids virus was poised "savagely" to diminish South Africa's working-age population and that, "barring a medical miracle," one in five South African adults would die of aids in the next decade. Such circumstances have debilitating psychological as well as physical effects on the masses, which augurs ill for their future.

In short, South African society is still sharply divided between rich and poor, but the rich now include black politicians, bureaucrats, and businesspeople while most of the poor are blacks struggling for survival. The material gap between the two classes is one of the highest in the world. "Comparative extreme inequality," Heribert Adam, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, and Kogila Moodley have written, is "South Africa's ticking time bomb."


South Africa has a dreadful crime problem. After the 1994 election, "political crimes" diminished, of course, and although ordinary crime remained high, it too may have decreased. Since 1998, however, murders, rapes, assaults, and violent robberies have reportedly risen dramatically. Surveys reveal that more than half the population feels unsafe, and 83 percent believe that the government has little or no control over crime. Even politicians and official buildings are not immune; in February 1998, police officers stole computers from Parliament itself.

Quantifying the problem is not easy. Official crime statistics are unreliable; few South Africans believe them, and some of them may be intentionally misleading. Since, by some estimates, probably no more than half of all crimes are reported to the police, one cannot accurately compare South Africa's crime rate to those of other countries. Moreover, South African government documents deduce startlingly different crime rates from the same data. They apparently agree that about 25,000 people were murdered in South Africa last year out of a population of around 43 million, but many official statements offer the palpably implausible figure of only 22.6 or fewer people killed out of every 100,000 South Africans. Some recent official statements more convincingly put the 1998 murder rate at 58.5 killings per 100,000 South Africans -- nearly 10 times the U.S. rate of 6.3 murders per 100,000 Americans. Other government documents admit that South Africa has the world's highest rape rate and that South Africa's rates for most violent crimes are very high compared to the United States and many other countries.

The rich live behind walls topped with barbed wire; the poor cope as best they can. For many, crime is a way of life -- the only way to survive. Organized gangs are now responsible for much large-scale crime in South Africa. Some are indigenous; others are run by foreigners, notably Nigerians and Russians. They export large quantities of drugs and stolen cars, often in collusion with police or other officials. The exceptional prevalence of crime is a drag on the South African economy and a cause of the dearth of foreign investment and the emigration of people with skills.

South Africa is also becoming a more corrupt society. As happened in many tropical African countries after they became independent, many blacks exploited their first opportunity to accumulate wealth by foul means as well as fair. Most members of the central government are said to be clean, but the Departments of Social Welfare, Safety and Security, and Justice have become notorious. In 1996, 46,000 pension claimants were found to be dead, and 26,000 people received duplicate pensions. Sacks of letters have been misappropriated by postal workers. Lawyers have milked dry the Legal Aid Board founded by the apartheid government.

The police are a special case. Mandela's government inherited a white-and-black police force trained to maintain white supremacy, one that frequently tortured or even murdered its victims, as has been confirmed by the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Many officers were deeply corrupt and lacked the most basic skills needed for conventional police work. So far, the government has not made much progress in cleansing the police. For one thing, even the police commissioner admits that about 30,000 of his officers -- nearly a quarter of the total force -- are functionally illiterate. Under the sunset clause, most white officers have held onto their jobs -- including two-thirds of senior management. Although the government has called in American advisers, the force still contains many undisciplined cops, and many officers, black and white, are themselves criminals.

Corruption is also embedded in the provincial administrations, especially in provinces that absorbed civil services created by the apartheid regime in the "homelands." In Mpumulanga, the province east of Johannesburg, education department officials reported that about 7,000 students given passing grades in the school-leaving exam in 1998 had in fact failed. Moreover, in June 1999, Mpumulanga's premier defended his reappointment of an official who had admitted lying in what may have been a fraud scheme by saying that "lying wasn't the end of Bill Clinton's life, and I personally don't find it to be a very bad thing."

Budgetary constraints, inefficiency, crime, and corruption have caused a serious decline in the quality of public services. To be sure of getting a letter or parcel to its destination, people must use expensive private couriers. Roads, especially secondary ones, are not maintained. The courts are clogged with cases. The hospitals are a mess. In May 1999, nurses at Soweto's Baragwanath Hospital (the country's principal hospital founded for blacks) told then-Deputy President Mbeki that thieves frequently stole drugs, food, and essential medical equipment, that they were afraid to work at night because they were threatened by gun-wielding thugs, and that those who reported criminals to the authorities were beaten up or killed. A month later, a panel of four senior state-employed doctors averted disaster by reporting that medical services in Gauteng (the province that includes Johannesburg and Soweto) were on the verge of collapse. They had a freeze on new doctors at Johannesburg's teaching hospitals canceled by saying that intensive-care patients would otherwise begin to die unnecessarily.


A major cause of inefficiency in South Africa is the quality of education, which is abysmal for blacks and declining for others. Under apartheid, the state provided white students with excellent educational facilities from primary school through university. The education available to blacks, on the other hand, was appalling, having been originally designed by former Prime Minister Verwoerd merely to prepare them for their status in apartheid society as unskilled or semiskilled workers in white homes, farms, and industries. Many black students active in the antiapartheid struggle fell for the slogan "Liberation Before Education," as a result of which black education virtually collapsed in some areas. Only a few blacks (though rather more Indians and coloreds) managed to attend private schools and fewer still to acquire higher education overseas, as Mbeki did at Sussex University in England. Consequently, many black members of the postliberation national and provincial governments, including bureaucrats, cops, and even schoolteachers, have had very little formal education -- which goes a long way toward explaining many of the problems of contemporary South Africa.

The Mandela government aimed to equalize educational opportunities and facilities for all South Africans and appropriated substantial sums for education. It opened all government schools to all races, overcoming white opposition. By 1998, there were 12.5 million students in South Africa's schools and universities, which employed a third of the total number of civil servants. Nevertheless, scarcely any improvement has been seen in education so far. Mandela's first minister of education was high on paper plans but very low on delivery. When his successor took over in June 1999, he reported that the education system was in crisis at every level, emphasizing continued inequality in access and facilities, low teacher morale, government and management failures, and poor quality of learning. With few exceptions, majority-black schools are mismanaged and ridden with crime. Students have been known to threaten teachers with murder if they mark exams too severely; one teacher was actually killed in front of his class by a student he had expelled. In the leading high school in Soweto, a reporter found that students in their twenties who have repeatedly failed their exams are role models for their teenage schoolmates. No wonder that many teachers are drunken and lazy, or that schools have difficulty recruiting teachers with even basic skills, or that -- according to Jonathan Jansen of the University of Durban-Westville -- fewer blacks are graduating from high school today than in 1994. No wonder, too, that some professors complain that many blacks with high-school diplomas are shockingly unprepared for genuine university work, or that the better universities often run remedial courses for entering students.

Indeed, the universities are in no better shape. The Mandela government inherited 11 universities that the apartheid regime had originally limited to white students, 1 originally limited to coloreds, 1 to Indians, and 6 to different ethnic categories of blacks. The white institutions were, of course, well funded. The others, especially the black colleges, had high student-to-faculty ratios, were controlled by authoritarian white administrators, and were housed in ramshackle buildings, libraries, and laboratories. By 1994, absolute segregation in the universities had been breached somewhat. In the university founded for Indians, for example, the student body had already become predominantly black. Today, with racially open admissions, black students form not only a distinct majority in colleges founded for coloreds and Indians but also increasingly large minorities in formerly all-white institutions.

Still, the universities founded for blacks are in serious trouble. The cash-strapped government needs tuition revenues, which remain low by Western standards, but many blacks cannot afford to pay them. Moreover, three of the colleges' administrations have engaged in serious corruption. In March 1999, for example, a government-appointed commissioner reported that the vice-chancellor of the highly reputed Fort Hare -- the oldest university for Africans in sub-Saharan Africa -- was inefficient, had run the university deeply into the red, had used money from the university's coffers to fund most of his daughter's education at Boston University, and had lost the confidence of the entire campus community -- faculty, students, and blue-collar workers alike. The commissioner recommended that he be fired and that the place be closed down unless it put its finances in order.

Scarcely any black ANC members were educated in the former all-white universities, which had excellent international reputations. (Everyone knows the University of Cape Town medical school as the leader in heart-transplant surgery.) The government regards them as alien institutions -- the product of white power. Although erstwhile all-white schools continue to receive the bulk of state funds for higher education, the government has cut their subsidies deeply, prodded them to admit more and more black students, and encouraged them to emphasize practical subjects such as accounting. These universities have also had to lower their entrance qualifications and, because of changing student preferences, shrink their humanities departments -- a process enhanced by the step-by-step removal of history as a subject in school syllabuses. They have tried to improve their standing with the government by recruiting black instructors, but without much success; the small pool of well-educated blacks is in great demand for far more lucrative employment in business.


Mandela, idolized throughout the world as one of the finest human beings of the twentieth century, is a hard act to follow. Mandela fought apartheid in South Africa and spent 27 legendary years in prison for his pains; Mbeki, by contrast, slipped out of the country at 19 in 1962 to attend Sussex University, his studies sponsored by the ANC. He remained in exile, serving the ANC in various capacities, until 1990. Mbeki is well read in English poetry as well as economics and revolutionary literature. His collected essays, Africa: The Time Has Come, reveal a politician repulsed by racism, intensely proud of being African, and imbued with a vision of a South African democracy, an African rebirth, and a global system purged of capitalist excesses. During the final apartheid years, as personal secretary to ANC President Oliver Tambo (who died in 1993), Mbeki was often the ANC's voice to the West. He also played a leading role in convening the meetings with white South Africa's business and political leaders that culminated in the formal negotiation of the democratic constitution. He was one of Mandela's two deputy presidents after apartheid fell in 1994 and has been responsible for the daily management of the government since 1997. Mbeki is a gifted and energetic man, much at ease with educated people, but he lacks Mandela's liberation-struggle credentials and common touch.

Mbeki declared that he would make his cabinet selections solely on the grounds of ability. In fact, although he shuffled ministers around, he retained nearly all of Mandela's cabinet, some of them incompetent. Like Mandela, he also included representatives of all major elements in the ANC, from businesspeople to former guerrilla generals. The result is a cabinet of 20 men and 8 women; of 20 blacks, 6 Indians or coloreds, and 2 whites. There were a few surprises, notably the promotion of Kader Asmal, the relatively effective minister of water affairs and forestry, to education minister; Nkosazana Zuma, the controversial but vigorous minister of health, to foreign affairs; and Essop Pahad, a friend of Mbeki's from his student days in England but not a full member of the previous cabinet, to minister in the office of the president. The most notable omission was the popular but turbulent Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela's former wife. Mbeki's appointment as deputy president of Jacob Zuma -- who has risen high in the ANC hierarchy but has had no formal education or previous cabinet experience -- warned that Mbeki has no intention of following Mandela's example and grooming a potential successor.

In his state-of-the-nation speech on June 25, Mbeki announced no major changes, but his tone differed from Mandela's and the priorities shifted from reconciliation (Mbeki did not use the word at all) to reconstruction. He challenged South Africans to cooperate with the government in building "a caring society" to "replace a society which in many instances has been and continues to be brutish and brutal in the extreme." Mbeki endorsed the previous government's conservative economic policies, emphasizing the need to increase the level of investment and savings. But although he accurately summarized the major problems confronting South Africa -- including police inefficiency, the inadequate educational system, and "impermissible levels of crime and violence" -- and promised laws to remedy them, his speech was short on specifics. In a brief reference to foreign affairs, he declared that his government would concentrate on helping to solve Africa's problems and he reiterated his belief in a vague "African Renaissance."

His critics believe that Mbeki has an authoritarian streak. They may have a point. Both his parents are dedicated communists. Mbeki himself spent nine months at the Lenin School in Moscow and sat on the Politburo of the South African Communist Party, although he let his party membership lapse in the early 1990s and it is not mentioned in his official biography. Mbeki does not like criticism. He tried to stop the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from publishing information about ANC crimes, but Mandela overruled him. He also believes in concentrating power. As deputy president, he won the right to appoint provincial prime ministers over the heads of the local politicians. He has accumulated unprecedented power in the presidency. On June 28, in the debate on his state-of-the-nation speech, he scathingly attacked some opposition parties, denouncing the tiny African Christian Democratic Party because its support for the death penalty and opposition to abortion reflected a "mean, angry, vengeful, soulless, and retributive theology."

Since no opposition party received as much as 11 percent of the vote in the 1999 election, South Africa is a de facto one-party state. There are, of course, factions within the ANC. It receives support from two allies -- the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) -- both of which continue to express socialist principles and claim that the government's economic policies are contrary to the interests of the working class. The SACP is a small party but, in a strange anomalous arrangement, it remains an integral part of the ANC and holds at least five cabinet seats. Cosatu represents blacks and others fortunate enough to have jobs in the formal economy. Its differences with the government came to a head in a pay dispute in August, when 500,000 public servants staged South Africa's largest strike since the apartheid era, disrupting schools and hospitals. The government stood firm, but the clash of interests has not been resolved. Nevertheless, neither Cosatu nor SACP leaders seem likely to split the ANC because they benefit from their association with government power. The same may be said for frustrated radicals within the ANC, many of whom look to Madikizela-Mandela for leadership.

Mbeki and some of his colleagues have made invigorating speeches, but there has been no discernible improvement in the state of the country. Mbeki is deeply committed to a healthy transition in South Africa from white supremacy to democracy. But he and his colleagues face stupendous odds: a weak economy that imposes dire budgetary constraints; appalling levels of crime, corruption, violence, and inefficiency; and a vast gap between the rich and the poor, which is compounded by the greedy behavior of some members of the president's own class -- the powerful new black elite. The future of the country is still uncertain. South Africa may become reasonably stable, prosperous, and democratic, but one cannot ignore the danger that the country may be following the downward trajectory of tropical Africa.

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  • Leonard Thompson is Charles J. Stille Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University. His books include A History of South Africa and The Political Mythology of Apartheid.
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