Sat, 12 Feb 2000

S. Africa dream unfulfilled 10 years on

By Steven Swindells

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters): Ten years after Nelson Mandela left an apartheid jail, South Africa is yet to taste the fruits of majority rule as it struggles against poverty, rampant crime and lingering racism.

When Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison on Feb. 11, 1990, he set the stage for one of the most remarkable transitions to a peaceful constitutional democracy.

A decade and two elections later, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) government faces a host of challenges, compounded by a looming AIDS crisis.

Analysts say the country's future democracy is not assured.

"Democracy has by no means consolidated itself. It's in the danger zone, it is still a fragile plant," said political analyst David Welsh, expressing concerns about the ANC's two-thirds parliamentary majority.

"Too much political power spells danger, arrogance, corruption and political sclerosis," he said.

Now the challenge is economic rather than justice even if current problems of the "Rainbow Nation" are deeply rooted in the apartheid past which kept Mandela behind bars for 27 years, analysts said.

Millions of black South Africans remain mired in poverty and without basic utilities, joblessness runs at more than 30 percent and the gap between rich and poor is a yawning gulf.

President Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela in June, has said that the country's battle against "the cancer of racism" is far from over and that victory requires the creation of a vibrant black capitalist class.

Crime, which has already earned South Africa the dubious honor of being the world's most violent place outside a war zone and Johannesburg the title of being world's rape capital, teeters towards being out of control.

Urban terror, a series of bombs against tourist targets together with an unstoppable rise in vigilantism point to a serious challenge to law and order. Corruption in the police and judiciary will not help the fight.

Bankers and the money markets have praised the ANC for its economic orthodoxy and stringent monetary policy but the economy is still failing to grow at a sufficient rate to create jobs despite renewed foreign investment after decades of sanctions.

AIDS has become the biggest threat to South Africa's future with more than one in eight of the adult population infected and projections of one in five HIV infections by 2005. Some 1,700 people a day are infected in the country.

Mbeki has outraged health workers by questioning the efficacy of anti-AIDS drug AZT and by denying the drug to expectant mothers or rape victims on cost grounds.

Analysts also point to the continued lack of a national identity for all its people, reflecting the divergent economics of different social groups. Even sport remains fragmented with soccer passionately followed mainly by black South Africans while whites usually stick to white-dominated rugby and cricket.

Desegregation is off the statute books and South Africans, particularly the generation born after the 1970s, increasingly mix socially and in the workplace.