When Nelson Mandela died in December, the world mourned. The countless millions who were inspired by the bright promise for South Africa represented by his release from prison 24 years ago, and his service as president from 1994 to 1999, should now shed a tear for the country's current state of disarray. South Africa suffers from shockingly underwhelming leadership, worsening governance, rampant official corruption, corrosive levels of crime, weak educational attainments and a deadening loss of hope among young and old. South Africa has lost its moral authority.

Those are among the findings of a study for the American Academy of Political and Social Science that I led, with most of the research and interpretation conducted by South Africans themselves.

The study's obvious and most punishing finding is that during the country's 20-year stewardship by the ruling African National Congress (ANC), almost no net new jobs have been created. Unemployment runs at an official level of 25%, but a widely accepted unofficial level is 40%.

The national trade-union federation, allied to the ANC, has been unwilling to give up its insistence on high minimum wages even for workers with few skills—thus keeping them out of the workforce. This intransigence—ostensibly an insistence on only "decent" wages—is certainly hindering the creation of millions of lower-wage jobs for a massive population, possibly as many as five million, of unemployed youth.

Under President Jacob Zuma, in office since 2009, South Africa's annual per capita gross domestic product is growing by only 2.7% a year, well behind sub-Saharan Africa's average of 5%. The kinds of foreign and domestic investment that would spur growth and employment have been deterred by governance weaknesses at seemingly every level.

Law enforcement is ineffectual, and South Africa is still among the 10 most-murderous places in the world. Electric power remains unreliable—many residents and businesses experienced severe load-shedding outages in past winters. Even setting up a small business is slow and difficult.

The perception of unchecked corruption also discourages investment. Government contracts appear frequently to go to favorites instead of the most qualified, resulting in the poor delivery of essential services like water to slum-dwellers, the electricity shortages that cause lights to fail and factories to sit idle and the collapse of much of the nation's educational system.

In February, protesters battled the police in many parts of the country. They sought drinkable water that had never been provided. They complained about police who were believed to be colluding with criminals and leaving shack-dwellers unprotected. They demanded schools that were safe and provided with both teachers and textbooks.

The platinum-mining and gold-mining industries, the backbone of the South African economy, have been periodically paralyzed by strikes. Already among the highest blue-collar wage earners in the country, the miners have demanded better pay. But they also are asking for better conditions underground and for better living arrangements above ground.

President Zuma and his ministerial associates, unfortunately, have devoted themselves more to centralizing authority within the upper ranks of the party than to providing competent services and good governance.

What is needed? An overhaul of schooling, from primary to university levels; a greater effort to improve health care in a nation rife with HIV/AIDS and drug-resistant tuberculosis; a renewed effort to arrest criminals and staunch crime; and the prosecution of corrupt politicians at the highest levels. Accomplishing one or more of these objectives would re-establish the ANC as the tribune of the people.

In parliamentary elections on May 7, voters will decide whether to let the ANC continue its inept rule, perhaps in the hope that the party will finally permit South Africa to reclaim its role as the beacon of a modernizing Africa, or put a new party in power and try a fresh start. (The president and deputy president are selected by the winning parliamentary majority.)

So far, the polls show that the ANC's popular support is declining. The Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, appears likely to double its 17% share of the vote in the last national election in 2009. The Economic Freedom Fighters Front, a populist party created by the flamboyant Julius Malema after he was tossed out of the ANC for disrespecting his elders, could win as much as 10%.

The polls also predict that the ANC's share of the vote will fall to 52%, from 63% in 2009. Such a drop, and a loosening of the ANC's grip on parliamentary seats, would not be enough to dislodge the political party that was the agent of the nation's liberation, the inheritor of Mandela's legacy and the only party in power that many South Africans ever have known.

But there is hope—about the only kind available in the country these days—that a poor or poorer-than-usual showing by the ANC in the May elections would lead to a dramatic housecleaning within the party executive and to the emergence of bold new leadership. If nothing changes, the future of all of sub-Saharan Africa may be dim. It is hard to see how the U.S. and other developed nations can help the weaker nations of the region if South Africa cannot help itself.

If nothing changes, the future of all of sub-Saharan Africa may be dim.
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