x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Gold up, but South Africa's greatest asset is on the wane

Despite its economic woes, South Africa's good mood can be attributed to the unifying figure of Nelson Mandela, whose death it fears.

Johannesburg is the only major city in the world that is literally built on a gold mine. It was a dusty settlement some 50km from the South African capital of Pretoria when the discovery of rich ore deposits was made in 1886. Its streets may not be paved with gold, but some of its lustre helps brighten the mood of the inhabitants. With gold prices hitting record highs on a daily basis, you'd think everybody would be happy.

It's true that many encounters with the locals are warm and friendly. I have been travelling to South Africa for more than 20 years. When I first visited in 1988, before the end of apartheid, I saw beaches in Durban with signs that read "Slegs Blanks - Whites Only", and a largely black population that was embittered. Neighbouring Zimbabwe, in contrast, was buoyant. It had already ended its civil war and gained independence. Twenty years later, and it's the South Africans who are cheerful, while the streets of Jo'burg are full of Zimbabweans trying to clean windscreens at "robots" - the quaint South African term for traffic lights - or simply relying on begging or street crime.

There are huge infrastructure projects under way, for the country is preparing for the football World Cup, due to kick off on July 12 next year. I was staying in what used to be called Halfway House, a rather gloomy stop-off between Johannesburg and Pretoria that has been renamed Midrand. The reason I was there was to visit the Second Africa Water Week. We had been promised visits by Jacob Zuma, the South African president, and the Prince of Orange.

The Prince of Orange pitched up, but Mr Zuma failed to show. He has lots of problems at the moment. An African traditionalist, he is trying to reconcile all of the different factions in his party, but is only succeeding in alienating them. There is a leadership crisis at Eskom, the country's largest parastatal, which he seems unable to resolve. Meanwhile his protege, Julius Malema, is stepping into the leadership vacuum and overruling the Eskom board.

So it was hardly surprising that Mr Zuma didn't find time to meet a few water ministers and delegates. Most of them were busy planning shopping excursions anyway. Their exit strategy was momentarily halted by the destruction of the Allandale Interchange Bridge, just a few minutes' walk from the conference centre. We walked down to watch its demise. By breakfast it was over. It was the most exciting event in Midrand for 40 years - since the bridge was built. Its demise was prompted by a desire to widen the N1, the main road from the capital to the golden city, so that the official cavalcades could whisk football players and officials in some style and speed.

But despite infrastructure spending, the economy is hurting. Unemployment is higher than 20 per cent. Manufacturing, mining, car sales and house prices have plummeted. Gold prices may be soaring but share prices of mining companies are languishing, partly because of higher costs but also because of the threat of nationalisation. Much of the gold being traded, including India's purchase of 200 tonnes of gold for US$6.7 billion (Dh24.6bn) from the IMF, is already in bank vaults, not in the ground.

Meanwhile, the rand has appreciated more than 28 per cent against the dollar this year. This is despite continuing speculation about the future of Trevor Manuel, the former finance minister, who is now the minister of planning. His economic policies are still being pursued, but for how much longer? Despite the economic woes, South Africa's good mood can be attributed to one man. He lives in the swanky Johannesburg suburb of Houghton, behind large beige walls in a large beige house that you reach by driving down an avenue of Jacaranda trees in bloom.

Now 91 years old, Nelson Mandela is reportedly slow on his feet, his hair is white and his memory is fading. This week the UN announced that his birthday, July 18, will be commemorated every year as Nelson Mandela International Day. He was responsible for the most thrilling sight I have seen on a rugby pitch. When Mr Mandela put on a Green Springbok shirt and embraced Francois Pienaar at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Ellis Park Stadium went mad. The crowd, mainly white, started chanting his name.

Rugby was the game of the Afrikaans, Mr Mandela's oppressors, but his genius was to embrace the stage and in the process to inspire a rainbow nation. "It's the idea of Nelson Mandela that remains the glue that binds South Africa together," Mondli Makhanya, the editor in chief of The Sunday Times, said recently. "The older he grows, the more fragile he becomes, the closer the inevitable becomes. We all fear that moment. There's the love of the man, but there's also the question: who will bind us?"

He emerged from Robben Island prison to single-handedly unite a nation. Hard-bitten hacks that I met in 2000 were in awe of his achievement. "To come out of jail after 27 years and preach unity and friendship was nothing short of heroic," said one friend of mine, an Afrikaans Johannesburg television reporter. "Anyone else would have said 'let's machete the lot of them', and who could blame them?" Mr Mandela preached reconciliation, and for the most part it has stuck. Now it is his own health that is failing, although everybody is hoping that he will last until at least next summer.

How good it would be if he were around to kick off at the opening ceremony in a Bafana shirt and cap, and with the words of the official slogan: "Ke Nako, Africa's time has come." In fact, how good would it be for South Africa if he were around for every summer? rwright@thenational.ae