JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Nelson Mandela didn't coin the term "Rainbow Nation" or the phrase "Proudly South African." But the optimism, determination and compassion of the country at its best owed everything to him.
In recent years, however, South Africa under the leadership of the African National Congress that Mandela loved is often quite different — shoddy, corrupt and incompetent. In short, depressingly like other African countries betrayed by liberation movements.
While life has gradually improved for many, problems once attributed to apartheid stubbornly remain. Nearly two decades after the ANC took power, poor education and healthcare systems still hold back many blacks. The police, no longer dominated by whites, are still brutal. Government departments still treat people with callous disregard.
Despite the existence of a powerful black elite and the growth of a modest black middle class, 40% of the population gets by on less than $40 a month per family member. Whites still earn six times more than blacks. And some analysts say the absolute electoral dominance of the ANC weakens South Africa's democracy.
Mandela, who died Thursday at his suburban Johannesburg home, is revered for his vision of South Africa as a prosperous nonracial democracy where blacks could take their place at the table without apology. His vision was bigger than racial harmony and peace, said political analyst Justice Malala — Mandela envisioned a country where blacks enjoyed the full benefits of equality and democracy.
"He went for reconciliation. He wanted to reassure particularly white South Africans that they still had a stake in the country," Malala said. "People thought, 'He's an ogre, he's going to do all those things that African dictators have done before.' He worked hard to say, 'No, that's not the way it's going to be.'"
Mandela initially supported the nationalization of major industries but changed his mind in the early 1990s in order to avoid scaring off foreign investors and triggering white flight. Rather than seizing farmland, the ANC embraced an effort to put together willing buyers and sellers that many dismissed as ineffective.
But people don't talk about the Rainbow Nation anymore, and when people use the term "Proudly South African," it's often in irony.
Protests over government failures, which may involve roadblocks, tire burning and riots, are common.
"We've been betrayed by our brothers and sisters," said Sibusiso Zikode, spokesman for a grass-roots organization of shack-dwellers. "There's no difference from the apartheid government. It's a question of human dignity. Treat me as a human being.
"While I'm waiting 20 years for a house, give me water," he said. "Why would I not get water?"
Bongisisa Gwiliza, a laborer who lives in a shantytown outside Rustenburg, said South Africa's new leaders did not keep their promises to narrow the gap between rich and poor.
"There's no sanitation. The place is so dirty," he said. "The shacks have got holes. When it rains, it floods. There's a lot of rain coming in. When there's wind, there's a lot of wind coming in, and it's very cold."
Racial tensions persist. The levels of extreme violence and crime remain high, particularly crime against women. In several cases this year, teenage girls were raped, mutilated and left to die.
During the apartheid years, South Africans living in black townships feared and loathed the police force that the white minority government used as a tool of oppression. When police killed 34 protesting miners outside Johannesburg in 2012, the echo of apartheid-era police brutality shocked the nation.
In early 2013, several police were charged with murder in the death of a Mozambican taxi driver, who was handcuffed to a police car, dragged hundreds of yards along a road and beaten, in an incident caught on cellphone video. The victim died that night of horrific injuries.
Statistics from the independent police watchdog group suggest those incidents are the tip of the iceberg, with 720 deaths in police custody reported in 2011-12. Analysts are uncertain why South Africa's police force remains so violent. Some blame the policies of former chief Bheki Cele, who sought more powers to deal with heavily armed gangs in a country with one of the globe's highest rates of violent crime.
For many, the education system is even more of a problem than the police.
One of Mandela's most inspiring quotations was his comment in 2003: "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."
But of those born in 1994, when Mandela was elected president and the first year of the "born free" generation, less than half who started first grade managed to finish high school. South Africa's education system delivers some of the worst math and literacy results on the continent.
President Jacob Zuma was forced to acknowledge in 2010 that South Africa came in last in an international survey of eighth-grade math results. He said teachers in poor schools work only about half the hours of those in better schools.
In the apartheid era, educational facilities were segregated, and black South Africans, forced to live in "Bantu homelands" or townships, were denied access to a decent education, trapping them in menial jobs as "garden boys" and "kitchen girls" serving white families. Today, middle-class and wealthy South Africans of all colors rely on an army of poorly educated servants to clean their pools, wash their clothes and clean their bathrooms.
Frans Cronje, deputy head of the South African Institute of Race Relations, said there was no excuse for South Africa's astronomical dropout rate.
"The education system is as well resourced as any in the developed world," Cronje said. "It's probably the single greatest policy failure of the ANC. It's retarded the country's progress. It's ensured that socioeconomic inequality is going to be entrenched in South Africa for another 20 years."
The failures of the education system were illustrated by the Education Ministry's failure in 2012 to deliver textbooks to students in Limpopo province until the school year was nearly over. It was a problem that had persisted in many areas for years, but received broad attention when activists took the government to court to force it to distribute the books. Even then, the ministry missed deadlines set by the court.
In major ministries including education, health, transportation and public works, government contracts are tainted by corruption.
Millions of houses have been built for the poor under the Reconstruction and Development Program, often by companies linked to government officials that have no building experience. Within a few years, residents have complained in many cases, they fall apart. In 2010, government officials acknowledged it would cost $240 million to demolish, rebuild or fix collapsing houses.
Hospitals remain chronically understaffed, and doctors are burned out by overwork. And South Africa's maternal and infant mortality rate is going in the wrong direction. It has doubled between 1998 and 2011, to 625 per 100,000 live births, leaving South Africa worse off than much poorer African countries such as Swaziland, Uganda, Ghana, Cameroon, Togo, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
A Human Rights Watch report in 2011 cited untrained and corrupt hospital staff members — some of whom demand bribes before they will attend to patients — as well as doctor shortages and lack of accountability.
Mandela himself was highly critical of the ANC government's failures in the area of HIV and AIDS under his successor, Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki denied the link between HIV and AIDS, and was slow to distribute life-saving antiretroviral drugs. AIDS activists had to take his government to court to force the distribution of medication to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the HIV virus.
And Mandela's ringing moral authority stood in sharp contrast to Zuma, who has battled corruption charges and questions about his personal behavior. He was acquitted of rape in 2006, but was criticized for having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive family friend about half his age.
A newspaper investigation found that Zuma's family had extensive high-level corporate ties and dozens of their own businesses, many of which were established after Zuma became leader of the ANC in 2007.
Even though the record has been disappointing, said Malala, Mandela would have argued that only the ANC can set things right. "The party line would still be paramount to him. He's the kind of guy who would think only the ANC could fix it," said Malala. "I don't know if he's right about that."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun