“Shoot me, white man!” yelled a group of children as they ran towards me in the Soweto slums, one of the poorest and oldest townships in Africa and a historical symbol of the apartheid years. In shock, I began contemplating how I could possibly respond to these young children who were apparently fighting back against the brutal history of racism experienced in their country – especially their township. At the moment they completely surrounded me, a nearby man in a Yankees hat smiled and told me that they were telling me to “shoot” a picture. After a huge sigh of relief and a small laugh, I used my iPhone to let them feel like Hollywood stars as they posed, danced and fought for the closest position to the camera.
This moment of misunderstanding occurred not far from the former house of Nelson Mandela and led me to contemplate how much one man’s leadership can change the perspective of a nation. Almost 20 years since Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) took power and ended apartheid, Mandela’s legacy of reconciliation remains ingrained in the national character. Mandela guided black South Africans to forgive their oppressors instead of take revenge, focus on the future instead of the past and become a “rainbow nation” that all of its races and tribes could identify with. This spirit was exemplified on my trip to Robben Island, the infamous island prison where Mandela and other black leaders were held for decades. Many former white prison guards and former black prisoners are still living together on the island. The oppressor and the oppressed now live side by side as friendly neighbors, attending the same church, sending their children to the same school and working at the same museum.
South Africa is one of the greatest success stories of recent history. However, it is not without its share of problems. Under its first world façade, it remains a third world country with significant poverty, crime, HIV and AIDS infection rates and corruption. There is still significant racial inequality and unofficial segregation throughout society and the economy. Many people live without access to sufficient sanitation or quality education. The unemployment rate remains around 25% and approximately 75% for blacks in rural areas. It is also the only major country where more people receive social grants than have a job and welfare payments are the fastest growing segment of the government budget. Strong unions have hurt economic growth by continuously demanding higher wages and inhibiting an increase in jobs for the broader population. It remains a relatively closed and protected economy, a legacy of apartheid, and many of the industries are still controlled by the state.
Some things simply take time to change, but the lack of progress can also likely be blamed on the lack of political competition. While South Africa has a real democracy, free press and fair voting process, the ANC has remained unchallenged since liberation. It’s customary for a liberation movement’s party to enjoy an extended period of unchallenged loyalty, but as stated by emerging market investor, Ruchir Sharma, “the ANC has been living off the liberation dividend for close to two decades.” Perhaps it will take a new generation to begin holding the ANC accountable for additional progress.
Despite these challenges, South Africa is a free and stable democracy with vast amounts of natural resources and several competitive multinational companies. Its businesses have begun to aggressively expand throughout the rest of Africa, which they neglected to do for decades, and are well positioned to benefit from opportunities in the region. I am hopeful that South Africa can emerge as a strong leader in an emerging continent and be a shining example to some of the African countries for how to overcome the vicious cycle of racial and tribal conflict.