CAPE TOWN, South Africa — In 1994, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton attended the inauguration of Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first democratically elected president, and called the event a "milestone of the 20th century." The Mandela years, with their optimism, pluralism, and sense of possibility, signalled South Africa's rebirth as a democratic nation. This week, Secretary of State Clinton returned to the country for a four-day visit, part of an extensive African trip, to discuss trade, security, and increased investment in the continent. If the conciliatory, magnanimous Mandela engaged in a Long Walk to Freedom, South Africa, under its current president, Jacob Zuma, is slowly but steadily stumbling backward.
Mandela elected to serve a single term as president; Thabo Mbeki succeeded him in 1999 and presided over a period of impressive economic growth and the emergence of a black middle class. But Mbeki's aloof, autocratic leadership alienated many, and delegates at the 2007 African National Congress (ANC) party conference ousted him in favor of his former deputy, Zuma.
Unlike Mbeki, a university graduate who was criticized by many in his party for being intellectual and elitist, Zuma has no formal education. As a young man, he became active in Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC. He was later jailed on Robben Island, alongside Mandela and many other anti-apartheid activists.
Zuma is the country's first Zulu president (Mandela and Mbeki were Xhosa). Zulus are the country's biggest ethnic group and a politically powerful faction when mobilized. Thus Zuma's election as deputy president was a concession to a large portion of black South Africans. Some feared Zuma's presidency would revive the country's historical tribalism, but instead it revived a hollow populism -- Zuma promised a great deal and delivered very little.
On July 10, President Zuma delivered the Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture in a church in Thohoyandou, a town in the country's impoverished Limpopo Province. Never a skilled public speaker, Zuma appeared acutely out of place. He recounted Mandela's many triumphs: his rural-yet-regal upbringing, his history with -- and, later, leadership of -- the ANC, his 27-year imprisonment, and how he had been instrumental in delivering democracy to South Africa. "He attracted people like a magnet through persuasion," Zuma said unpersuasively.
Zuma was speaking about the most influential figure in the country's history, and yet both his words and his delivery felt flat. He hurried through his prepared text. There was an air of impatience, rather than anticipation, in the crowded hall. He was trying too hard to seem relaxed.
Though Zuma made no mention of it, outside of the church a small battle was being fought. Three hundred members of the ANC Youth League, which is hostile to Zuma and wants to see him unseated, had arrived in Thohoyandou to disrupt the lecture. Some protestors brought along Zuma T-shirts, which they shredded on the street. Others sang a Zulu song entitled "Shoot Zuma." Expecting trouble, soldiers, police, and various security forces lined the streets outside the church. There was barbed wire and barricades, tear gas and handcuffs, water cannons and Casspirs (a South African armored vehicle, the scourge of the ANC during apartheid).
The scene was familiar from the iconography of apartheid, only now the police and army were black. In a country that has been struggling for years with wide-scale electrical outages, a very different kind of power struggle was occurring: The conflict between those with too much power and those with none at all. This, and not the story of Mandela, is the original South African narrative.
The contrast between the scene in the church hall and that on the street perfectly parallels the contradictions of contemporary South Africa: between the government's grand talk of infrastructure development and its failure to provide basic services; between the illusion of progressivism and the insistent poverty and depressing prejudice that dominates the daily news. At the ANC's policy conference in late June, Zuma bemoaned the "plight of the poor." But that same week, his defense minister, Sam Makhudu Guluybe, was in the United States, negotiating for Zuma the purchase of a luxury, 300-seater Boeing for Zuma at the cost of $235 million.
Zuma's first term as president has seen an increase in the centralization and consolidation of state power, and what appears to be an increase in factionalism, cronyism, and corruption. Zuma himself remains tainted by allegations of impropriety -- in 2007, he was charged with 783 counts of fraud, racketeering, and corruption; a judge cleared him in 2008 on procedural grounds - a ruling that remains highly controversial.
Zuma works best as a retail politician, a phrase that does not exist in South Africa but probably should. He has immense charm but narrow ability. His governing style veers uneasily between overreach and lack of ambition. And he is now less popular than ever -- according to a poll released in July, a majority of the country's youth have no faith in his leadership and consider him incompetent. They see his policy proposals as lacking in substance and question his contribution to the country over the past three years.
For a man who admitted during his 2006 trial for rape (of which he was acquitted) to having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman, his government's AIDS policy has been surprisingly more forthright and responsible than Mbeki, who vacillated between pretending AIDS did not exist and trying to wish it away by magical means. According to a 2008 Harvard study, Mbeki's resistance to making anti-retrovirals widely available caused the premature deaths of 365,000 South Africans.
Zuma does not have such tragedy on his hands, but he has nothing to be proud of, either. South Africa's first-quarter GDP was 2.1 percent, down from 2.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011. More than half the country's youth is unemployed. (The country's overall unemployment rate is 24 percent.) Trevor Manuel, the minister of national planning, said that the unemployment rate for black youth is 65 percent.
Youth unemployment may be, as Manuel concedes, South Africa's "single greatest risk to social stability," but others loom. The ANC has called the poor state of the country's education system a "crisis." Of the 142 countries listed in the World Economic Forum's 2011-2012 Global Competitiveness Report, which rates the overall quality of a nation's tertiary and secondary education system, South Africa ranked 133rd.
The Department of Basic Education's failure to deliver textbooks to students in Limpopo Province has received more national attention than almost any other story this year -- and yet, after more than 6 months, thousands of students still do not have books. According to a 2011 Transparency International Report, 60 percent of South Africans said corruption had increased in the country during the last three years. And a report released in February by the think tank the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) registered a decrease in civil liberties, government effectiveness, and accountability from the previous 2008 review.
Like much of the public sector, Zuma is widely perceived as being inefficient, unfocused, and compromised. To survive politically, he has aligned himself with the South African Communist Party (SACP), which is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Yet South Africa's significant leftist and labor factions are angry with an ANC government that "talks left and walks right": promising socialist policies while acceding to big business and fiscal conservatism.The government will have to make some concessions to the Communists. To ignore them would be to make the same mistake Mbeki made; the SACP helped oust him in 2007.