South Africa’s Slide

This week’s Economist magazine highlights mounting troubles in Africa’s largest economy. Though South Africa is far from state failure, the heady optimism of early post-apartheid days is long gone. Even as many African countries are surging ahead, politically and economically, the “rainbow nation” is stalling out.

Mandela’s land is dear to me, since I have traveled there three times in the last few years, leading groups on two occasions. It is a land of tremendous beauty and potential, but the current political climate and nagging legacies of the white supremacist era are holding South Africa back.

The main obstacle to South Africa’s progress is an uncompetitive electoral landscape, which breeds corruption and bad governance. There is no way around it: the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has lost its way. Though South African elections are basically free and fair, a serious opposition party is yet to emerge as the country nears two decades since the end of apartheid. The ANC’s dominance must be broken, if only for a short time, if the country is to move forward.

Lack of electoral competition is hardly the only challenge that South Africa faces. As the Economist’s special report highlights, South Africa’s schools are in pitiful shape. Many of the country’s southern African neighbors produce better outcomes, and that with less spending per student. To be fair, these neighboring states do not have to deal with the fallout of the struggle against apartheid. During the last 15 years of white minority rule, widespread protests and civil unrest led to a “lost generation” with respect to education. And, despite some recent gains, HIV/AIDS persists as a major burden for the country. And we could go on.

Let’s hope that South Africa’s current travails are simply a rough patch in an otherwise promising post-apartheid narrative. Africa and the world need a stable, free, and prosperous South Africa. And, after the nightmare of apartheid, it would be tragic if South Africa goes the way of Zimbabwe.

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