Specialist in African Affairs
South Africa is a multi-racial, majority black southern African country of nearly 52 million. It held its first universal suffrage elections in 1994, after a transition from white minority rule under apartheid, a system of state-enforced racial segregation and socioeconomic discrimination. South Africa entered a period of mourning in late 2013, following the passing of its first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela, who is viewed as the founding father of today’s nonracial South African democratic system. Due to its political, trade, and investment ties across Africa and its active role within the African Union, South Africa is influential regionally. It is viewed as a U.S. strategic partner in Africa, despite periodic foreign policy differences. In mid-2013, President Obama traveled to South Africa after visiting Senegal, prior to a visit to Tanzania. The trip centered on U.S.-African partnerships in the areas of trade and investment, development, democracy and youth leadership development, and peace and security. Key issues addressed in South Africa included bilateral political and trade and investment ties, development cooperation, and shared U.S.-South African aims regarding conflict mitigation and development across Africa.
Congress has long been engaged with South Africa, notably during the anti-apartheid struggle, and with regard to post-apartheid socioeconomic development efforts, a key focus of bilateral ties. Since 1992, South Africa has been a leading recipient of U.S. foreign aid, mostly devoted to addressing HIV/AIDS and other health challenges. Aid oversight has drawn the bulk of South Africa-related congressional attention in recent years. U.S. policy makers are also increasingly focused on efforts to strengthen already growing U.S.-South African trade and investment ties. Other key areas of bilateral engagement include security cooperation and an ongoing U.S.-South African Strategic Dialogue. Established in 2010, the Dialogue centers on health, education, food security, law enforcement, trade, investment, and energy, among other issues.
South Africa has the largest, most diversified, and highly industrialized economy in Africa. It has enjoyed moderate economic growth in most recent years. Average per capita incomes and access to education have grown across racial groups, notably for blacks. Despite post-apartheid national socioeconomic gains, South Africa remains a highly unequal society with respect to wealth and income distribution and access to jobs, social services, utilities, and land. Most blacks are poor, and average black incomes are far smaller than those of the historically privileged white minority. Blacks also suffer very high unemployment rates (36% in 2011), and have far less access to education. Shortages of quality housing, utilities, and social services in townships—the vast, high-density housing settlements where many of the poor live—spur ongoing social and political tensions. Other key problems include public corruption and widespread violent crime. Vigilante justice and mob violence is not uncommon, and heavy-handed police tactics sometimes result in human rights abuses. South Africa also suffers high rates of HIV/AIDS.
In late 2012, the governing African National Congress (ANC) party, despite some reported internal divisions, reelected as its president Jacob Zuma, ahead of national elections in 2014. Zuma was elected to his first term as president of South Africa by the country’s parliament in 2009. The ANC government faces the substantial challenges noted above, along with others, including labor unrest, rising dissatisfaction within key labor constituencies, and dissatisfaction among youths. Youth populations face particularly high jobless rates and may lack older generations’ continuing allegiance and gratitude to the ANC for helping to end apartheid. To address these diverse challenges, the government is investing billions of dollars to upgrade infrastructure and improve public service delivery, but is likely to face continuing challenges in meeting popular expectations.
Date of Report: December 19, 2013
Number of Pages: 31
Order Number: R43130
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South Africa: Politics, Economy, and U.S. Relations - R43130