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South Africa's widening divide

14 December 07 12:25 GMT
By Orla Guerin
BBC News, Johannesburg

Brian Mdluli is living the new South African dream.

At 33, he is a CEO in the marketing world, with a lifestyle to match - his and her BMWs parked in the driveway, a swimming pool and a boat.

Mr Mdluli is part of South Africa's small but rapidly growing black middle class, the so-called "Black Diamonds".

They are reaping the benefits of steady economic growth under President Thabo Mbeki and the government's policy of black economic empowerment.

For the first time in its history, South Africa's governing African National Congress (ANC) is facing deep divisions over its choice of leader - a reflection of the state of the country itself, where the gap between rich and poor is more evident than ever.

Over a quick game of pool in his private den, Mr Mdluli gives his verdict on the state of the nation.

"I always compare South Africa to a 14 year old," he says.

"You're not a kid but you're not an adult either. This is the time in any kid's life or in any young adult's life where leadership is very important."

The current ANC leadership has delivered opportunities for people like Mr Mdluli but many others have been left behind.

The growth presided over by Mr Mbeki has been jobless growth - cold comfort to the millions dreaming of better days.

And the old division between black and white has given way to a painful new divide: the yawning gap between rich and poor black people.

Poverty trap

Mr Mdluli knows both sides of the story, as he stays close to his roots in the township of Soweto.

From his spacious home in one of Johannesburg's leafy suburbs it is a half-hour drive back to the narrow streets and modest homes of his birthplace.

Life is improving for many here too but Mr Mdluli takes us on a tour of the squatter camps.

Here families live in tin shacks, bordered by refuse, in the company of rats.

Across the country the numbers living in severe poverty are believed to have doubled in a decade.

A recent study by South Africa's Institute for Race Relations found that the numbers living on less than $1 a day rose from 1.9m in 1996 to 4.2m in 2005.

Jacqueline Rosetta is one of those trapped in poverty.

An articulate lone parent, aged 40, she has been looking for a job for five years, and waiting for a house for twice as long.

Ms Rosetta takes us to see her home, a one-roomed tin shack in a rough neighbourhood of Soweto.

Her government grant of 200 rand ($30) per month does not even cover the rent.

The shack is neat and tidy, but it is cramped and her two teenage children cannot live with her here, because there is no room.

There is no heating, no running water, no fridge and no cooker - just a hotplate in the corner.

Rain comes in through the roof.

Crime fears

Ms Rosetta says her life has got worse since the ANC came to power, not better.

"I'm asking for how long I am going to go through this struggle," she says.

"Because the people that we voted for are living in mansions, while we are living in shacks. They are driving smart cars, while we can't afford to drive."

Ms Rosetta was held up at gunpoint close to her home.

Like many South Africans she worries about the high crime rate. There are an average of 50 murders a day.

"It's not safe at all, even in the same street that I'm living in. There's no safe place," she says.

Ms Rosetta says she dare not venture out after 1900, for fear of being robbed, shot or raped.

Back in 1994, Nelson Mandela gave South Africans a vision of the future.

The Mbeki years have brought progress - including the construction of 2.4m homes.

But now that Mr Mbeki is trying to cling to power by seeking a third term as ANC leader, he stands accused of tarnishing Mr Mandela's legacy.

"This is not what we dreamed of," said Xolela Mangcu, a political commentator.

"We all dreamed that we would be part of this project of national reconciliation and development but we've just turned into yet another one of these oligarchic African countries, with a leader who doesn't want to leave office."


If as expected, Mr Mbeki is replaced by former Deputy President Jacob Zuma, how much will change for South Africans like Ms Rosetta?

Mr Zuma is seen as a champion of the poor and he has got strong support from the left-wing: the South African Communist Party and the powerful Trade Union Confederation, Cosatu.

They want to see more attention paid to the needs of the poor and the working class.

But Mr Zuma has been reassuring the business community at home and abroad that he intends to keep the economy on its current course.

So Ms Rosetta is not expecting her circumstances to improve.

"The poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer," she says.

"The government doesn't look after the poor. It just looks after itself."

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