It’s tempting to forget about South Africa, now that Nelson Mandela has found his final resting place.
But the South Africa he transformed is still changing in interesting and surprising ways. The nation is already the economic powerhouse of the continent and has recently muscled its way onto the world stage. It will see watershed elections next year, on the 20th anniversary of its transition to democracy, and that vote may for the first time be heavily influenced by a burgeoning black middle class. Yet the nation still struggles with many problems such as crime, inequality and a horrific rape epidemic.
It’s a potent mix of problems and promise, with a panoply of interesting personalities, from firebrand politician Julius Malema to the truly irreplaceable Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Here, then, are six (of many) reasons to continue paying attention to “the rainbow nation.”
1. It’s the Economy, Stupid
South Africa is the undisputed financial hub of Africa, with the continent’s most advanced banking sector and a growing manufacturing base. That affects the United States to the tune of tens of billions of dollars a year. Trade between South Africa and the U.S. clocked in at $22 billion dollars in 2011, the U.S. government says. That makes South Africa the nation’s 36th-largest trading partner in the world.
South Africa is also a beneficiary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows African nations to export goods tariff-free to the U.S. As in many African nations, South Africa’s exports are mainly raw materials—but in a departure, you might be surprised to learn that one of South Africa’s main exports to the U.S. are motor vehicles. South Africa exports some $2.2 billion worth of cars to the U.S. each year. Even if you didn’t buy a South African-manufactured BMW, the guts of your car may come from the rainbow nation: South Africa also exports a large number of catalytic converters.
2. Africa’s Advocate
South Africa recently joined BRICS, an economic bloc composed of Brazil, Russia, India and China. It was a big step toward the nation’s goal to be taken seriously on the world stage, and the other BRICS nations have repeatedly dubbed South Africa the “gateway to Africa.”
This power positioning of the Southernmost African nation as the voice of the continent is relatively new, but South Africa has pulled it off in record speed. The ex-wife of President Jacob Zuma now heads the African Union, a position that solidifies South Africa as an important voice on the continent.
South Africa isn’t on the U.N. Security Council, but that’s not for lack of trying. President Zuma has given a number of impassioned speeches on the topic, and South Africa has made clear that it is not beholden to the council’s five permanent members—the United States, China, France, the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation—when it comes to voting at the General Assembly.
But it’s clear that South Africa has a voice of its own, and it’s one to which more and more world powers are listening.
3. The 2014 Election
The nation faces elections next year—and if the boos from the crowd at President Jacob Zuma during Mandela’s memorial are any indication, they’re going to be interesting.
Mandela’s African National Congress has dominated elections since 1994, but many South Africans today say they’re disappointed in the party. Part of their rancor comes from an investigation into Zuma’s alleged expenditure of more than $20 million in government funds to upgrade his personal home (with a swimming pool, a visitors’ pavilion, an amphitheater and a corral for cattle—all updates described by the Zuma camp as “security upgrades.”)
There is no clear inheritor of the ANC scepter but there has recently been a blossoming of political parties whose express intention, it seems, is to grab the baton. If a recent, riveting political debate on a local news channel is any indication, there are many issues to talk about: Inequality, racism and economics dominated as the able guests alternately debated and, at times, yelled at each other.
4. Now the Bad Things
South Africa is often called the rape capital of the world. It’s a moniker the country truly deserves—South African police documented more than 64,000 rapes last year. And it seems this cuts across social lines. A number of high-profile South Africans have been accused in court of rape: President Jacob Zuma, the leader of South Africa’s biggest trade union federation—even that guy accused of faking sign language a Mandela’s memorial.
Even more worrisome, rapists don’t seem to discriminate when it comes to choosing victims. A man recently made headlines after he was arrested for raping a six-week-old baby. Grandmothers are raped with frightening regularity.
Corruption and crime, of course, are rampant, and many analysts blame ineffective police and a weak judicial process.
And then there is race. Until recently, ANC rallies—including rallies led by Zuma—included an old struggle song that includes the line, "one Boer, one bullet." A Boer is a white farmer.
Also, in October, a small group of white people held a protest saying they were victims of a "white genocide." They cite some 3,000 murders of whites in the last decade. However, police say some 16,000 people of all races were killed nationwide last year.
5. There’s a Growing Black Middle Class—and They Vote
But black South Africans are no longer restricted to menial jobs as they were under apartheid. In fact, researchers have found that South Africa’s black middle class is bigger than ever, at 4.2 million people and growing.
As Americans know, a strong middle class is the backbone of a healthy democracy.
South Africa’s black middle class is hungry for success, for equality and, possibly, for change. Whatever they choose will set the tone for this nation going forward—and that will be interesting to see.
6. It’s a Weird and Wonderful Country
If you’re still reading, we’re probably preaching to the choir here. But South Africa is awesome. It’s a country full of contradictions, prickly with its troubled history yet incredibly friendly, the beating heart of Africa’s economy but also a destination for some of the world’s best natural landscapes and attractions. It’s a nation in transition—and wherever it goes next is sure to be interesting.
And, the most adorable man in the world lives here.
Anita Powell is a Johannesburg-based journalist who has covered Africa for six years and previously covered Iraq and Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter.