Justin Cartwright: The Rainbow Nation's miracle turns a little rusty

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When I was a boy in Johannesburg many years ago, I used to watch with horror as the police - young Afrikaner boys mostly - rounded up black people without a pass and threw them into vans.

When I was a boy in Johannesburg many years ago, I used to watch with horror as the police - young Afrikaner boys mostly - rounded up black people without a pass and threw them into vans.

I knew even then, long before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that unspeakable cruelty was going on every day in every police station in the country. This was in the Hendrik Verwoerd days of apartheid when the mad bureaucrats of Pretoria thought they could divide South Africa into separate countries by ethnicity, so that the millions of Africans would in fact become parcelled out into mini-states. Only those with work permits would be allowed to enter the white state, essentially most of the productive parts of South Africa, including all the major cities. It was never going to work. But the Nationalist Government persisted for 30 years with the policy of racial separation, searching desperately for euphemisms for white domination, which was described initially as "apartheid" then as "separate development".

It was almost funny, as "kaffirs" became "natives" then "non-Europeans", then "Bantu", and then "blacks", but never, of course, South Africans, who were protein-fuelled, rugby-playing white people.

All this - and more - has gone. Ten years on, a miracle has been achieved, and this negotiated change serves as a model and an inspiration for much of the world. So is South Africa now set on a course of prosperity and happiness? Let me go to the particular. The advertising campaign for the African National Congress (ANC) is being handled by Ogilvy & Mather. Graça Mandela, Nelson's wife, has a large share in Ogilvy. The loser in the bid for the account, an agency called Lascaris, has a large shareholder in Cyril Ramaphosa, a capitalist who might have been president instead of Mbeki had things worked out differently.

African empowerment has led to the rapid enrichment of senior ANC supporters; government jobs which entail a car and a good salary are routinely filled by ANC loyalists. The poverty of their education and lack of experience is, of course, the product of apartheid, but the result is predictable: large swathes of government are inefficient and there are many cases of corruption.

That said, South Africa is a functioning state with functioning transport, tourism and public services; it also has a heroically struggling higher education sector. The police, for the most part, are trying desperately to fight crime.

Crucially, what most people want is work. Although the ANC has managed to extend education, rural electrification, water supplies and house building, a major migration from the countryside is taking place as the rural poor try to find a place for themselves in the new South Africa. Shacks of corrugated iron, plastic sheeting and hardboard line the highway into Cape Town for 12 kilometres. These shacks spring up everywhere work may be found. Unemployment, made more miserable by the high incidence of Aids, runs as high as 70 per cent. The economy, flourishing under the careful management of the Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, must find the money for social programmes - in order to stay in power beyond 2009 - and must not frighten off foreign capital.

Wednesday's election will undoubtedly be won by the ANC and their unloved leader, Mbeki. People who know him well tell me that he has grown angry at the performance of many of his own people. There is talk of impatience, of drinking, of late-night internet surfing, and even of a possible serious illness.

For what it is worth, I think that Mbeki has two enormous problems. One is to have followed in the footsteps of Mandela, and the other is the necessity to behave in a way contrary to his nature. His life before l994 was spent striving for the great miracle of liberation.

But liberation has brought not paradise but a mass of everyday problems. And he seems curiously unable to engage with ordinary people: when he wished the South African rugby team well for the World Cup, he encouraged them to remember the example of JM Coetzee, who had just won the Nobel Prize. I would doubt if any single one of them had read Disgrace,

which is explicitly pessimistic about the survival of Western culture in South Africa, and which Mbeki had, a few years before, denounced. Welcome to the Rainbow Nation.

'The Promise of Happiness', by the South African-born Justin Cartwright is published in August