JOHANNESBURG – As South Africa prays for ailing anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela and welcomes the first African-American U.S. president, it is still struggling to become the country that Mandela dreamed it would be.
Progress has been made in the 19 years since Mandela was elected president, but it is still a nation divided by haves and have-nots.
One major change is that the “haves” now include so-called “Black Diamonds” - a new class of wealthy, successful South Africans who are not white.
Sandton is perhaps Johannesburg’s most affluent neighborhood. It’s also where you’ll find one of the city’s hottest restaurants, “Signatures,” known for its fine dining and upscale clientele.
There’s nothing unusual about that. South Africa has long been a place with stunning wealth and the good life.
What’s striking here, is that the owner of “Signatures,” Desmond Mabuza, is black. He was born and raised in Soweto, the iconic township at the center of protests during the battle over apartheid and where poverty is still endemic.
Mabuza bursts with energy and charm as he greets guests, then goes back in the kitchen to supervise the chefs and waiters.
“Yeah, I’ve certainly broken the mold,” Mabuza said in an interview as servers buzzed around the table. “I just happen to be doing it because I enjoy it, not to make history or break barriers.”
He attributed his success to hard work, learning the business from bottom to top, and a big break right after high school, when he went to Marquette University in Wisconsin.
“The likes of Mandela have obviously laid the foundation. It’s up to us, the younger generation ... to come back and bring in the expertise required to take this country to the next level,” he said.
But Mabuza and the so-called “Black Diamonds” - a term which is not always seen as a compliment - are exceptions.
Life has been very different for the overwhelming majority of black South Africans since the end of apartheid and the birth of Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation,” with its promise of equal opportunity for all.
The unemployment rate is 25 percent on average, but it is closer to 50 percent among young black workers, according to a recent study. And whites, just 10 percent of the population of 48 million people, earn on average six times as much as blacks.
“The one singular failure, probably the Achilles’ heel of the South African transition, is the nature of inequality,” said Adam Habib, Vice Chancellor at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
South Africa, the most powerful economy on the African continent, has one of the greatest divides between haves and have-nots anywhere in the world.
It has the second highest degree of inequality in family income distribution in the world, only topped by Lesotho, a tiny kingdom within South Africa, according to the CIA’s World Factbook.
“The vast majority of people who are poor are still black,” Habib said.
And what’s more, there’s now a huge divide within the black population. At the top are those “Black Diamonds,” men like Patrice Motsepe, a billionaire who made his fortune in mining, and in the news recently after vowing to donate half his money to charity.
Others include top government officials like Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa, with wealth estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
They and others who have made it big are often the target of resentment here, because in many cases their wealth and success are largely seen as the result of government contracts, and preferences given to black businesses through a very aggressive affirmative action program called “Black Economic Empowerment.”
As economist Mike Schussler explained, “a lot of people feel those jobs are given to friends and family and people with political connections rather than on ability.”
While there’s favoritism everywhere, Schussler and other analysts insist it’s rampant in South Africa. And it doesn’t help that the government of President Jacob Zuma is widely viewed as a corrupt and ineffective steward of the economy.
At the bottom are folks like Dennis Martinez. He and his family live in what’s basically a tin-roofed shack in Soweto, where they burn an open fire to cook and keep warm against the evening chill. “We haven’t got lights, we stay in shacks, if it’s raining then all the rain comes through,” he said.
Martinez said nothing much has changed in the nine years he’s lived there.
Asked if life was getting better, he said, “No, it is not, because we haven’t got jobs and we have to struggle.”
However, even amid the poverty there is optimism and hope. Martinez’s daughter Danielle, 9, and wearing a somewhat tattered dress, declared “I want to be a president” when asked about her ambitions for the future.
“I want to help poor people. I want to give them money, food and presents,” she said.
While South Africa’s government claims correctly that a vast number of people now have better housing and basic services than during the apartheid era, few would dispute there is still a long way to go to get to where Mandela hoped his nation would be.