South African Crossroads

South Africa reaches a crossroads this weekend as the ruling African National Congress elects a new party leader. This is the person who will lead the ruling ANC into the next presidential election in 2019.


A quarter century from the end of apartheid, this country is in rough shape.

  • More than one-third of South Africans aged 15–35 are unemployed.
  • Unemployment is four times higher for black youth (40 percent) than for white youth (11 percent).
  • Just 30 percent of South African households qualify as “middle income.”
  • The average annual number of violent protests climbed from 21 between 2004 and 2008 to 164 from 2014 to 2016.

Why has this happened? Falling global demand for the gold, platinum, diamonds, and coal the country produces leaves its government with less money to invest in development, exacerbating problems created by the physical legacy of apartheid: the distance between the townships and rural areas where many black South Africans still live, on the one hand, and the schools and jobs that could help them escape poverty on the other. But the ANC must accept blame for corruption and lousy leadership. Jacob Zuma, president since 2009, faces 783 charges of corruption and racketeering.

ANC delegates will vote this weekend. The contenders are Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Ramaphosa is a former trade unionist turned successful businessman. He leads an ANC faction that recognizes the need to balance moves to transfer more of the country’s economy and land into black hands with a consistent effort to maintain investor confidence. Dlamini-Zuma is former chair of the African Union Commission, former health minister, former foreign minister, and Zuma’s former wife. She heads a faction of the ANC that wants to protect its privileges and keep Jacob Zuma out of jail.

Keep in mind that South Africans under 30 are too young to remember apartheid. For them, the ANC is not the party of liberation but the party of power. It’s not the party that brought change; it’s the party that resists change. That’s part of why it’s not clear that either candidate can lead the ANC to victory in 2019, leaving the Democratic Alliance in position to lead the first non-ANC government since the end of apartheid.

The ANC’s credibility and future are on the line this weekend. The vote will be close. By Monday, we should know who won.

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This Saturday, July 20, will mark the 50-year anniversary of the day a human being first stepped onto another world. A moment born out of Cold War political pressures, it's easy to forget a half century later how much bitter controversy the project provoked at home and the intensity of the worldwide fanfare that followed its success.

The moon mission's primary purpose was to defeat the Soviet Union. By the time John Kennedy became president in 1961, the Soviet Union had advanced far ahead of the United States in the race for achievement in space. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite. A month later, a dog named Laika became the first living creature to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, the first human to do so.

In early May, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, spurring Kennedy to announce a far more ambitious plan. On May 25, Kennedy famously pledged that by the end of the decade Americans would go to the moon and return safely to the Earth.

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, but new President Lyndon Johnson quickly signaled his intention to see the promise kept. The Soviets held their space lead through 1965, by landing an unmanned craft on the Moon.

The moon mission stoked controversy in the United States. A review of polls reveals that only in 1969 did a majority of Americans support the project. Many people argued that the billions spent on a moonshot should go toward the war in Vietnam or to fight poverty in America's inner cities. "No hot water, no toilets, no lights. But Whitey's on the moon," sang musician and activist Gil Scott Heron. It didn't help when a fire during the Apollo 1 mission killed three astronauts and destroyed their space module.

But when Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the moon on July 20, 1969, the event took on a life of its own. It was a decade framed by two images of respected TV anchorman Walter Cronkite—shaken to the core on air by the 1963 murder of President Kennedy and then speechless with awe as Americans bounded across the surface of the moon.

A decade that included confrontation with the Soviets in Cuba, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, a failing war in Vietnam, race riots in American cities, and violent chaos at the 1968 Democratic Party convention ended with an accomplishment a quarter million miles away, that was watched live by 94 percent of Americans who owned a TV.

Americans weren't the only ones watching. About 650 million people around the world watched the moon landing live on TV, making the event the first truly global televised event. Nine weeks later, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins began a world tour.

Concerns that planting an American flag on the moon's surface would seem an act of obnoxious nationalism faded as the three men were greeted by overflow crowds in 27 cities in 24 countries over 39 days. An estimated one million people greeted them in Dhaka (then Pakistan) and some 1.5 million turned out in Mumbai (then Bombay).

Fifty years later, moon missions are still a mark of national prestige. Russia, China, India, the EU, Japan, and Israel have all sent probes to orbit the Moon or landed vehicles on its surface. But none of them matches that first "giant leap for mankind."

Next up: Mars? For thoughts on the next space race, click here.

Bonus fact: An iPhone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon.