As World Cup 2010 kicks off, where South Africa stands 16 years after apartheid
South Africa is a model of racial reconciliation following decades of apartheid, with a burgeoning black middle class. But high crime, unequal wealth, and social tensions persist as the nation hosts World Cup 2010.
Johannesburg, South Africa
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In Johannesburg, skyscrapers loom where rolling Highveld prairie once stood. In Cape Town and Durban, and even the stoutly midwestern city of Bloemfontein, smoothly paved highways, world-class airports, and posh hotels flourish amid South Africa's temperate, Mediterranean climate.
The insurgent and impoverished black townships that would have been do-not-enter zones in the early 1990s have now become tourist havens. The most famous of them all – Soweto, site of riots well into the 1990s – is ribboned with bed-and-breakfasts, gated communities, and shopping malls. It will play host to the opening ceremony and game in the spectacular new Soccer City stadium, with speckled panels that make it look like a gigantic calabash gourd. Or a poppy-seed bagel, if you prefer.
IN PICTURES: South Africa: Sixteen Years After Apartheid
The South Africa that will go on display this month is a country that has completed its transformation from a racist pariah state into a multicultural majority-led state, with many of the accouterments of a European first-world powerhouse. It is a country that has achieved much in little time, and while many South Africans fret about the direction their country is heading and others complain about the slow pace of change – and understandably so – it is also a country that 16 years after apartheid has become one of the world's premier models of racial reconciliation.
Consider the South Africa that Nelson Mandela took over in April 1994. Laws prohibited more than 80 percent of the population from voting, from living in designated "white only" areas, from access to higher education and job opportunities. The gap between rich and poor was vast, symbolized by the gold-baron mansions in Johannesburg's northern suburbs and the dusty tin-shack squatter camps and matchbox homes of Soweto.
Anger and frustration among both whites and blacks threatened a race war. Majority rule, led by Mr. Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), offered an olive branch to its former enemies and a manifesto of racial reconciliation – yet rivalries among different black parties sparked almost daily conflicts that had the potential of stealing away the country's best chance for peace.
South Africa today is not perfect, of course. Scratch the gleaming surface, and you'll find government corruption, crumbling water systems, overextended electrical power stations, declining schools, and an enduring unequal distribution of wealth. You will even find a terrifying hatred of foreigners coming to South Africa to find work, a hatred that played out two years ago in xenophobic attacks.
But how do you measure success in a country like South Africa? Do you look at the growing number of mirror-skinned high rises or at the metastasizing informal settlements filled with poor blacks searching for work? Do you look at the 1.1 million houses built for the poor and nearly 16 years of economic growth or do you look at South Africa's dubious distinction of being a country with one of the largest gaps between rich and poor, with the largest number of AIDS patients, with one of the world's highest violent crime rates, and where 47 percent of the population lives in poverty?