From Promise to Despair

The recent decline of South Africa

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A boy wearing a hat with the colors of the South African flag walks past a body covered by a thermal blanket outside a dilapidated squatter building in the central business district of Johannesburg.

South Africa once had one of the most advanced economies in Africa, and many believed the country represented the future of the continent at the turn of the millennium. After the ending of apartheid in 1991 and throughout Nelson Mandela's presidency, which lasted from 1994 to 1999, South Africa experienced relatively peaceful and successful times. In the early 2000s, South Africa accounted for 40% of the GDP of the 48 countries south of the Sahara.

The mining industry in South Africa used to be a driving force behind the economy, accounting for 60% of the country's export revenue. But recently, the industry has been declining. After a series of wildcat strikes, in which unionized laborers refused to work, companies laid off employees in massive numbers. The country’s overall unemployment rate is now up to 27.7%, and the youth employment is a shocking 54.3%. Furthermore, the country’s economy is limping along with only 1.3% annual growth.

Not only has the country experienced economic troubles, but it has also been plagued by one of the worst hiv‭/‬aids epidemics the world has seen. Currently, one-fifth of all people with aids live in South Africa, and seven million South Africans have the disease. For young South African women, the rates are even worse, as their likelihood of contracting the illness is twice as high as their male counterparts. 

Thabo Mbeki served as president from 1999 to 2008, and his aids policy certainly did not help mitigate the virus’s spread. He denied that hiv‭/‬aids could be combated by drugs, and believed that malnutrition was the reason for compromised immune systems. His stance led to the death of 330,000 South Africans from hiv‭/‬aids, and the virus continues to be a major issue in the country today.  

His successor, Jacob Zuma, has also faced scrutiny and judgement. Zuma has an uncanny ability to unite South Africans, despite the many divisions within the major political party in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC). Zuma has faced repeated accusations of grand corruption, in addition to abhorrent sexual behavior allegations. In 2013, he used millions of rands of taxpayer’s money to build a personal swimming pool and update amenities in his house. A practicing polygamist, Zuma has six wives and twenty children, a number of which were born out of wedlock. Polygamy is accepted and traditional in parts of Africa, but having a child out of wedlock is not generally accepted. In 2005, he was accused of raping a family friend, but those charges were dropped. Then in 2017, a former mentor of his revealed she had been sexually harassed by Zuma once in the 1990s and again in the mid-2000s. 

This past spring, more than 30,000 South Africans marched to protest Zuma’s presidency, calling for his resignation. The political crisis has made it even harder to reform the economy, forcing the nation into further turmoil.

One of the major forces behind the political crisis has been just one family: the Guptas. After moving to South Africa in the early 1990’s, the Guptas built a business empire, investing in mining, computer equipment, and media, among other industries. The family’s close ties to President Zuma, personally and through their company, Oakbay Investments, has made South Africans wary of the family’s power.

Racial tensions have riven South Africa since colonial times, particularly since apartheid began in 1949. In June 2017, it was revealed that the Gupta family, through Oakbay Investments, hired a British PR firm Bell Pottinger to stir up racial tensions in the country, pushing a “white monopoly capital” agenda. Recently uncovered e-mails between the Guptas and Bell Pottinger in January of 2017 provided proof that the family had hired the firm to distract the public from their corrupt practices by playing up the country’s racial divisions and history of inequality. The company went so far as to create fake Twitter accounts and websites, launching a social media campaign against “white monopoly capital,” and racial tensions in South Africa skyrocketed. In February 2017, only a month after the emails between the Guptas and Bell Pottinger were released, there were over thirty attacks on white South African farmers. The spike in murders resulted in the country’s largest prayer meeting, drawing in 1.3 million people to Bloemfontein, the judicial capital city of South Africa. “The white monopoly campaign” proved the extent of the Gupta’s influence over the country’s affairs. The scandal has heightened the resistance against Zuma, in addition to creating more tension in the race to succeed him as head of the ANC. The nation’s next biggest hurdle will be determining who will succeed Zuma, as the ANC has practically turned South Africa into a one-party state.

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