The glowing image South Africa gained from the 2010 World Cup has dimmed considerably since then, and the Aug. 16 killing of 34 striking platinum miners by police was a grim new milestone for a country in growing political peril. Not only did the killings themselves evoke memories of the brutal treatment of protesters in that nation’s brutal past, but South African prosecutors last week dusted off an old tactic from the apartheid era: Instead of indicting the police, the government charged surviving miners with murder, saying their unrest provoked the police.
Though charges were subsequently dropped, the incident confirms fears inside and outside of South Africa that the “Rainbow Nation” is losing its way. The dominant African National Congress, the party once led by Nelson Mandela, has come under increasing criticism for corruption and for paying too little attention to a 36 percent unemployment rate and massive education disparities. Journalists in the country are concerned about a push by the ANC to limit press freedoms to cover the nation’s troubles. Some activists who were prisoners under apartheid have remade themselves as business executives — but appear to be more interested these days in personal gain and flashy lifestyles than the fate of the nation.
South Africa has enjoyed remarkable stability in the 18 years since apartheid gave way to democracy. But as Mandela’s example of disciplined leadership fades farther into the past, ANC leaders are reacting to the nation’s current problems not with courage, but with defensiveness — as the mine tragedy shows. Stiffer electoral competition would do the party, and South Africa, a lot of good.