JOHANNESBURG — The building that houses South Africa's highest court, made partly with bricks from an apartheid-era prison, symbolizes what Nelson Mandela hoped his country would become, a haven of tolerance wiser for the nation's past anguish.
Its mosaics, slanting columns, and natural light are meant to welcome people to the Constitutional Court, guardian of a charter devoted to human rights and clean governance. Nearby, a former jail complex where Nelson Mandela was held echoes a time when whites often resorted to violence to impose their rule over the black majority.
It is a neat fusion of history and aspiration. In reality the country once dubbed the “Rainbow Nation” is drifting between poles, cursed by crime and poverty, blessed with talent and resources, a trail-blazer of reconciliation that elected Mandela as its first black president in 1994 elections but still can't find harmony.
The anti-apartheid leader and Nobel laureate returned to his Johannesburg home today after spending a night in a hospital for what presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said was a “successful” medical exam. Maharaj said Mandela was “well.”
The 94-year-old, however, has grown increasingly frail over the years. In December, he spent three weeks in a hospital, where he was treated for a lung infection and had a procedure to remove gallstones.
The revered leader's brief hospitalization comes at a time when South Africa is struggling to live up to the promise that Mandela has come to symbolize.
“Although he's old, he's a real father to South Africa,” said Thembeni Sebego, a resident of the Soweto township in Johannesburg. “We need him very, very, very much. But what can we do? If God calls him, it's time, because he's old now, he's old.”
Though he withdrew from public life years ago, Mandela is seen by many compatriots as a hero, a symbol of hope, even a psychological refuge from the social ills and uneven leadership that prevail in South Africa.
The country of 50 million people has much warmth of character. But violence brews in its soul, partly fueled by one of the world's widest gulfs between rich and poor. All walks of life know what it is to be uneasy and alert to surroundings, even if the rates of some violent crimes have fallen.
“You can't walk around at night, there is the fear of rape everywhere,” said Mashudu Mfomande, campaign coordinator for Amnesty International in South Africa. “Even in your own home, you don't think you are safe because we have cases of people coming into other people's houses, and have raped t hem. So as a woman in South Africa, it is not a good environment to be in.”
A series of shocking events has intensified handwringing over the direction of society.
On Aug. 16, the shooting deaths of 34 striking miners by police at the Marikana platinum mine was a flashback for some who recalled state killings under apartheid. An official inquiry is underway.
On Feb. 2, a 17-year-old was gang-raped and mutilated before she died. On Feb. 14, Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee athlete who was an inspirational figure around the world, was arrested on charges that he murdered his girlfriend in Pretoria. On Feb. 26, a Mozambican taxi driver was dragged from a South African police vehicle and later died in a police cell.
Last week, President Jacob Zuma sought to counter the image of South Africa as a place in turmoil, saying police were making inroads.
“We also dare not portray our beautiful country as an inherently violent place to live in,” he said. “South Africa is a stable, peaceful country. Like all countries, there are elements that conduct themselves in a shocking and unacceptable manner.”
Some South African media thought Zuma was in denial. “Are you kidding, JZ?” scoffed a headline in The Citizen newspaper.
Mandela's legacy is secure even though he did not provide solutions to poverty and inequality during his five-year presidency. His sacrifice as a prisoner under apartheid for 27 years, and his generosity of spirit in the tense transition to democracy won international acclaim.
“He means a lot because he brought a lot of changes, a lot of changes here in South Africa and not only in South Africa, but the whole world,” said Elvis Vusi, a Soweto resident. “So we need all the leaders, if they can just follow in his footsteps so that each and everybody must live in a peaceful country.”
Despite insecurity, South Africa reported 7.5 million tourist arrivals between January and October last year, a 10.4 increase over the same period in 2011, with many coming from Europe. Despite labor strife and credit rating downgrades, resource-rich South Africa will host Brazil, Russia, India and China at the “BRICS” summit this month.
But what is to blame for the persistent problems of a country that has proven it can shine, notably in its triumphant staging of the World Cup soccer tournament in 2010?
One view is that apartheid, which enforced inequality along racial lines, had a role in undercutting the society after it. Endowed with equal rights under the law, many South Africans expected better services and opportunities.
According to Pitika Ntuli, a South African poet and sculptor, the thinking among many South Africans was: “'I used to be insulted, I'm no longer called those things. Now the other things will come.’”
For many, that didn't happen. Expectations faded, anger mounted.
Some commentators say South Africa's new leaders, including Mandela, should have pushed harder to restructure an economy dominated by whites; opponents of that view say it would have alienated industries and set the country on a downward path similar to that of Zimbabwe after independence.
The African National Congress, the liberation party that has dominated since the end of apartheid, has also struggled to deliver on promises. It is a frontrunner ahead of 2014 elections, but corruption scandals and other missteps have hurt democracy's evolution.
“What has occurred since 1994 is the steady development of a fusion between party and state, accompanied by a refusal fully to accept the legitimacy of opposition parties,” David Welsh and Paul Hoffman wrote in a commentary on the website of the Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa, a non-profit group.
Today, the Nelson Mandela Center of Memory, which promotes the former president's ideas, tweeted something he once said: “I would venture to say that there is something inherently good in all human beings.”
Mandela was also a realist and recognized the challenges that South Africa would face. The rest of his line goes:
“... deriving from, among other things, the attribute of social consciousness that we all possess. And, yes, there is also something inherently bad in all of us, flesh and blood as we are, with the attendant desire to perpetuate and pamper the self.”