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Economic gap widens among black people in South Africa

Percy Ndaba, a resident of the Alexandra neighborhood in South Africa's largest city, Johannesburg, stands in front of a mural of the late former President Nelson Mandela on June 14, 2018. "We want a leader who carries on the will of Madiba (Mandela)," he says. (Mainichi)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The former township of Alexandra in this city is where the late President Nelson Mandela once lived in his youth, and the simple brick building where he resided still stands. The poor neighborhood, sitting right next to a posh residential area, is a symbol of the massive economic divide in South Africa.

Mandela came to the township in 1941 in his early 20s from Transkei, in the present-day province of Eastern Cape in the southeastern part of the country. Percy Ndaba, 49, who was born and grew up in Alexandra, is proud of the history his hometown shares with Mandela. "Because of Madiba (Mandela's nickname), we are not being discriminated (against) and judged by the color of (our) skin anymore," Ndaba said.

As Mandela fought and defeated the apartheid system administered by white people about a quarter century ago, black people have enjoyed election rights and political freedom. However, life in Alexandra, says Ndaba, has not changed much. Now the district is hooked up to the power grid, which did not exist when Mandela was here, and has more paved roads. But the area is as crowded as it used to be, and dirty water with strong stench oozes out of leaking plumbing. In one section with many huts, more than 400 people in 84 families share a single spigot for cooking and laundry. One of the two shared toilets was out of order. When asked by this reporter if the conditions were unhygienic, Takalan Mudau, 35, a housewife, responded, "What can we do?" She said she uses a bucket to relieve herself because people always form long lines in front of the toilet.

In the 2000s, the administration of President Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki promised to improve the infrastructure of Alexandra by investing 1.3 billion rands (about 96 million U.S. dollars or 11 billion yen), but no improvements are visible. A memorial center dedicated to Mandela has been under construction for 15 years. Many residents in this area suspect that the delay is because of corrupt politicians. "Perhaps they are pocketing the money (for the projects)," said one resident.

The poor, meanwhile, face a tough economic situation. The unemployment rate for youths stands at more than 35 percent and has remained there for some time. Landing a job requires a connection with senior or rank-and-file members of the ruling African National Congress, say many people, complaining that good people are not getting the jobs they deserve. A 32-year-old woman in Alexandra said with a sigh, "I have been looking for job and sending my CV everywhere for more than four years. But the result is nothing."

In contrast, black elites are receiving preferential treatment as part of efforts to correct the past imbalance rooted in apartheid, but as a result, economic disparity has widened among black people. The Sandton area only 5 kilometers from Alexandra looks like a European city, and has one of the biggest shopping centers in Africa and a securities exchange. Formerly a white neighborhood, Sandton is now home to many black business people clad in top brand suits and driving fancy cars. The level of income disparity in South Africa is among the worst in the world. "I wonder what Madiba would say if he were alive," said Ndaba, in a grim voice.

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Koizumi, Johannesburg Bureau)

Editor's note: This is the final installment of a three-part series on the current situation of South Africa following the death of its first black president, Nelson Mandela in 2013. This year marks the centennial of the birth of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

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