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Impatient South Africa

NEW YORK – The African National Congress, which has governed South Africa since the end of apartheid, is in serious trouble. Unfortunately, the country may not be far behind.

In 1994, the ANC – widely credited with ending decades of white minority rule – came to power with a near-monopoly on political legitimacy among the country’s black majority. Together with President Nelson Mandela’s moral authority, this status helped the party to accommodate a wide range of interests and establish a stable economic order without losing the support of poor black voters, many of whom fell outside that order. Although supporters’ expectations were high, so was their patience – a dynamic reinforced by the ANC’s liberation mythology and early successes in expanding housing, electricity, and social grants.

Nearly 20 years later, this patience has worn thin. While poverty has decreased slightly since 1994, inequality has vaulted upward, fueled by extreme unemployment, state incapacity, corruption, and affirmative-action policies skewed toward the upper reaches of the economy (not to mention the pernicious legacy of apartheid).

Rapid urbanization has increased the number of people living in settlements surrounding the country’s major cities, where deprivation is especially stark and government malfeasance is more widely felt. Meanwhile, a new generation of “born free” South Africans are not swayed solely by the ANC’s historical credentials, especially with youth unemployment near 45%.