DIEPSLOOT, South Africa: A dusty maze of concrete, sheet metal and scrap wood, Diepsloot is like so many of the enormous settlements around Johannesburg, mile after mile of feebly assembled shacks, the impromptu patchwork of the poor, the extremely poor and the hopelessly poor.
Monica Xangathi, 40, lives here in a shanty she shares with her brother's family. "This is not the way I thought my life would turn out," she said.
Her disappointment is not only with herself; she is heartsick about her country. Fourteen years after the end of apartheid, South Africa - the global pariah that became a global inspiration - has lapsed into gloom and anxiety about its future, surely not the harmonious "rainbow nation" so celebrated by Nelson Mandela on his inauguration day.
"If only I could make Nelson Mandela come back," Xangathi said. "If only I could feed him a potion and make him young again."
This longing to propel the past into the present is rooted in more than fond reminiscence. Two weeks ago, a vicious power struggle culminated in the governing African National Congress deposing one of its own, President Thabo Mbeki, and replacing him with a stand-in for Mbeki's archrival, Jacob Zuma.
The past year has been more than acidic politics that have soured the national mood. Economic growth slowed; prices shot up. Xenophobic riots broke out in several cities, with mobs killing dozens of impoverished foreigners and chasing thousands more from their tumbledown homes.
The country's power company unfathomably ran out of electricity and rationed supply. Gone was the conceit that South Africa was the one place on the continent immune to such incompetence. The rich purchased generators; the poor muddled through with kerosene and paraffin.
Other grievances were ruefully familiar. South Africa has one of the worst crime rates. But more alarming than the quantity of lawbreaking is the cruelty. Robberies are often accompanied by appalling violence, and people here one-up each other with tales of scalding and shooting and slicing and garroting.
The poor apply padlocks in defense. The rich surround their homes with concrete and barbed wire - and there are suggestions that more are simply fleeing the country.
In great measure, the tough realities of South Africa's long haul after apartheid have simply replaced the halo of liberation's first days. Likewise, while Mandela seemed a saintly figure to many, his successors seem all too human.
"We are not the world's greatest fairy tale, but rather a young, messy and not-always-predictable democracy," said Mark Gevisser, a journalist and author of "Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred."
Messy and unpredictable, yes. Scandalous, too.
Mbeki was president for nine years, and his image slowly warped from someone aloof but well intentioned to someone secretive and conniving. During the past year, he went to extraordinary lengths to protect his police commissioner, accused of shopping with mobsters in an expensive haberdashery and permitting them to pick up the tab.
Mbeki's political nemesis is Zuma, whom he once fired as deputy president and who has image problems of his own. In 2006, he was tried on rape charges and acquitted, testifying that his accuser had encouraged him by wearing a short skirt and sitting provocatively. As a Zulu man, he said, he was duty-bound to oblige her. He then showered, as he described it, to "minimize the risk" of contracting the virus that causes AIDS.
Last December, Zuma won control of the African National Congress, clearing the way for him to assume the presidency after the 2009 elections. Only lingering corruption charges could frustrate his ambitions, and some of his more prominent followers have declared they will "kill" if Zuma is thwarted. On Sept. 20, party leaders called an early end to the Mbeki years, installing a caretaker, Kgalema Motlanthe. Zuma remains the president-in-waiting.
The onslaught of unsettling news has proved too much for some with the means to flee. No reliable numbers are kept on emigration, but "packing for Perth" - a phrase used to describe white flight, not necessarily to the Australian city - is believed to be on the increase.
Since 1996, the black population has risen to a projected 38.5 million from 31.8 million, according to government statistics. The white population has dropped to 4.5 million from 4.8 million.
John Loos, an economist at First National Bank of South Africa, who tracks the reasons given by people who sell homes in white suburban markets, said 9 percent cited emigration in the last quarter of 2007. In the first quarter of 2008, the number rose to 12 percent and in the second quarter to 18 percent.
Minority groups - which include whites, Asians and people of mixed race - "are prone to overreacting about anything," Loos said. "We have people with the mind-set that this country is just another Zimbabwe in the making."
Far fewer blacks emigrate out of such despair, but that does not mean they are more cheerful. "Things are quite scary here, especially during the Zuma court cases with people talking about war and killing," said Rodney Muzuli, a community development worker. "You wonder if we're going the path of Rwanda."
Hlengiwe Dladla, a mother at home with her 1-year-old in Diepsloot, said: "I don't trust Jacob Zuma. Did you hear what he said at his rape trial? Well, I am also a Zulu, and I can tell you that if he was truly a cultural man, he would respect a woman, short skirt or not."
Louis Manjanja, 26, a TV installer, blames the African National Congress, which led the liberation struggle, for the troubles. "The ANC is a bunch of greedy guys fighting for positions and ignoring what needs to be done," he said. "I voted for them before, but not again."
It is easy to tap into such naysaying. But there is a case to be made that pessimistic South Africans are looking at a glass that is more than half full yet describe it as near-empty. Not so long ago, people feared that the end of apartheid would set off civil war and a blood bath.
Adam Habib, a political analyst, finds it understandable that the marginalized complain, and he invokes the term "relative deprivation." The gap between the rich and the poor may be widening, but the lot of the poor is improving, he said: the unemployment rate, however horrendous, is in decline; the incomes of the poor, however meager, are on the rise.
While some critics have likened Mbeki's exit to a Stalinist purge, Habib, a deputy vice chancellor at the University of Johannesburg, pointed out that the transition was smooth and nonviolent, something rare in Africa. "Our democracy is only 14 years old," he said. "Rather than calling this a crisis, people ought to ask how our institutions came together so well in so short a time."
South African pessimism has spawned a countervailing industry of reassurance. Louis Fourie, a noted financial adviser, travels the country delivering a speech called "South Africa, How Are You?" Yes, he confesses, the public education system is deplorable. Yes, crime is horrendous. Yes, 20 million impoverished South Africans are "living in hell, no other way to describe it."
But Fourie reminds people that the country has 2,400 kilometers of gorgeous coastline, 10 international airports, a robust stock exchange and an open society with a free press. He fondly repeats the phrase that South Africa is "the most unsung success story in modern history."
7 months ago