As citizens of South Africa and the world took 67 minutes of their time last Thursday to celebrate Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday and perform good deeds in honour of the icon's years in public service, the country's central bank met to consider raising interest rates.
South Africans heaved a sigh of relief when the bank chose not to raise rates. But there were two new dark clouds it put in front of South Africans. First, South African Reserve Bank Governor Gill Marcus said the country's youth unemployment rate had reached 52.8 per cent. Second, the governor revealed that the economic-growth outlook for 2013 had been revised down from 2.4 to 2 per cent, meaning that jobs would be scarce indeed.
It was the dose of reality we were not looking for on July 18, so the news was hidden deep inside the newspapers the next day, and way down on news websites. We wallowed in the birthday glow of Mr. Mandela, a man who has for the past 23 years had the ability to unite us and make us feel good about the future.
Yet even as we enjoy these nostalgic moments – and we have been going through a lot of these as Mr. Mandela has lain in hospital these past six weeks – the truth is that South Africa is entering a period of serious political noise and economic challenges. Nineteen years into our democracy, we are not doing as well as we should be.
And an election is coming up in eight months. It is going to be noisy.
The elephant in the room is Mr. Mandela's own party, the fabled African National Congress, Africa's oldest liberation movement (it is 101 years old) and repository of black South Africans' hopes and dreams for decades. The ANC is in the throes of a massive convulsion: its leaders are accused of greed and corruption, it is riven by factions at every level and parts of it keep splitting off with every new election since 1994. It has shed support in eight of the country's nine provinces in the last two elections.
The ANC's leader, President Jacob Zuma, has a credibility problem. He swats off personal scandals daily, with the opposition and the media doggedly clinging to the State's decision to build him a house worth $20-million in his home village in KwaZulu Natal. His herd of cattle is housed in a $100,000 enclosure in a village where families live in mud huts just metres from his fence. His cousin's business has just been awarded a $100-million government contract. He is also in talks to buy a customized Boeing 777 jet at the princely sum of $200-million.
The party of Nelson Mandela is disintegrating, slowly but surely.
In a small, sleepy town called Tlokwe, the ANC's municipal representatives ejected their own mayor and replaced him with a member of the opposition Democratic Alliance. Party bosses pulled rank from the business capital, Johannesburg, and re-installed the mayor. The party representatives defied leaders again and deposed the mayor. They are seething because the man has been accused of corruption and no action has been taken by party bosses.
This is the least of the ANC's problems, however. Police data show that there is a protest over delivery of services at least once every two days. Many of these are propelled by angry, disgruntled youth who make up a large chunk of the 52 per cent unemployed.
It is a disconnect that is becoming increasingly apparent, leading to South Africa's Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe, telling the Financial Times last week: "If (the ANC) does not pay attention to the importance of being relevant to the people of South Africa then it will run the risk of losing power."
There are many who relish the opportunity of filling this gap. The opposition Democratic Alliance has grown from a paltry 1.7 per cent of support in 1994 to 23.9 per cent in the municipal elections of May 2011. The party is pushing hard to increase its support among black South Africans.
It is not the only player. Respected academic (she is former principal of the University of Cape Town) and businesswoman Dr. Mamphela Ramphele has launched a new party, Agang, which bemoans the ANC's failures and targets the disillusioned black vote.
The ANC's former battering ram, expelled youth leader Julius Malema, is launching his own party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, with a radical agenda modeled on the economic heroes of his hero Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Mr. Malema wants nationalization of the economy and expropriation of white-owned land without compensation. An online survey found one in four young people back him.
Meanwhile, our gold-mining sector – long the backbone of the economy – is in trouble as workers demand 100 per cent pay increases. And, as indicated, the economy is in dire straits. The people are restless. The young are unemployed. Political populists such as Mr. Malema are on the rise.
Nelson Mandela lies in hospital. He is keeping us together for now. A hard year looms.
Justice Malala is a South African newspaper columnist and political commentator.