It may be tempting to dismiss Pretoria as a small global player, but it is fast muscling its way on to the world stage, writes Anita Powell.
It is tempting to forget about South Africa, now that Nelson Mandela has found his final resting place.
But the South Africa he transformed is still changing in interesting and surprising ways. The country is already the economic powerhouse of the continent and has recently muscled its way on to the world stage.
It will see watershed elections next year, on the 20th anniversary of its transition to democracy, and that vote may for the first time be heavily influenced by a burgeoning black middle class. Yet the country still struggles with many problems such as crime, inequality and a horrific rape epidemic.
It is a potent mix of problems and promise, with a panoply of interesting personalities, from firebrand politician Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters to the truly irreplaceable Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.
Here, then, are six (of many) reasons to still pay attention to “the rainbow nation”.
1. It’s the economy, stupid
South Africa is the undisputed financial hub of the continent, with the continent’s most advanced banking sector and a growing manufacturing base. That affects the US to the tune of tens of billions of dollars a year. Trade between South Africa and the US clocked in at $22 billion in 2011, the US government has said. That makes South Africa the US’s 36th-largest trading partner in the world.
South Africa is also a beneficiary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows African countries to export goods tariff-free to the US.
As in many African countries, South Africa’s exports are mainly raw materials, but you might be surprised to learn that one of South Africa’s main US exports is motor vehicles. South Africa exports $2.2bn (R226bn) worth of cars to the US each year.
Even if you did not buy a South African-manufactured BMW, the guts of your car may come from the rainbow nation: South Africa also exports a large number of catalytic converters.
2. Africa’s advocate
South Africa recently joined Brics, an economic bloc composed of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. It was a big step towards the country’s goal to be taken seriously on the world stage, and the other Brics nations have repeatedly dubbed South Africa the “gateway to Africa”.
This power positioning of the southernmost African country as the voice of the continent is relatively new, but South Africa has pulled it off in record speed.
The ex-wife of President Jacob Zuma, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, now heads the AU, a position that solidifies South Africa as an important voice on the continent.
South Africa is not on the UN Security Council, but that is not for lack of trying. Zuma has given a number of impassioned speeches on the topic, and South Africa has made it clear that it is not beholden to the council’s five permanent members – the US, China, France, Britain and Russia – when it comes to voting at the General Assembly. But it is clear that South Africa has a voice of its own, and it is one to which more and more world powers are listening.
3. The 2014 general elections
The nation faces elections next year, and if the boos from the crowd at Zuma during Mandela’s memorial service are any indication, they are going to be interesting.
The ANC has dominated elections since 1994, but many South Africans today say they are disappointed in the party. Part of their rancour comes from an investigation into Zuma’s alleged expenditure of more than R200 million in government funds to upgrade his personal home (with a swimming pool, a visitors’ pavilion, an amphitheatre and a corral for cattle, all described by the Zuma camp as “security upgrades”).
There is no clear inheritor of the ANC sceptre, but there has recently been a blossoming of political parties whose express intention, it seems, is to grab the baton.
If a recent, riveting political debate on a local news channel is any indication, there are many issues to talk about: inequality, racism and economics dominated as the able guests alternately debated and, at times, yelled at one another.
4. Now the bad things
South Africa is often called the rape capital of the world. Police documented more than 64 000 rapes last year. And it seems it cuts across social lines. A number of high-profile South Africans have been accused in court of rape: Zuma (who was acquitted), Zwelinzima Vavi, leader of South Africa’s biggest trade union federation (who had charges withdrawn), and even the man accused of faking sign language at Mandela’s memorial event.
Even more worrisome, rapists do not seem to discriminate when it comes to choosing victims. A man recently made headlines after he was arrested for raping a six-week-old baby. Grandmothers are raped with frightening regularity
Corruption and crime, of course, are rampant, and many analysts blame ineffective police and a weak judicial process.
And then there is race. Until recently, ANC rallies – including rallies led by Zuma – included an old struggle song that includes the line, “one settler, one bullet”.
Also, in October, a small group of white people held a protest saying they were victims of a “white genocide”. They cited 3 000 murders of white people in the past decade. However, police say 16 000 people of all races were killed nationwide last year.
5. There’s a growing black middle class – and they vote
But black South Africans are no longer restricted to menial jobs as they were under apartheid. In fact, researchers have found that South Africa’s black middle class is bigger than before, at 4.2 million people and growing.
A strong middle class is the backbone of a healthy democracy.
South Africa’s black middle class is hungry for success, for equality and, possibly, for change. Whatever they choose will set the tone for this nation going forward – and that will be interesting to see.
6. It’s a weird and wonderful country
South Africa is awesome. It is a country full of contradictions, prickly with its troubled history yet incredibly friendly, the beating heart of the continent’s economy, but also a destination for some of the world’s best natural landscapes and attractions.
It is a nation in transition – and wherever it goes next is sure to be interesting.
* Powell is a Joburg-based journalist who has covered Africa for six years and previously covered Iraq and Afghanistan.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers