Nelson Mandela's Country Doesn't Work

07/31/2013 04:28 pm ET | Updated Sep 30, 2013

I realize that saying anything less than worshipful about Nelson Mandela's legacy is, well, like attacking Mother Teresa -- whom Mandela has replaced as the most revered person in the world. (OK, so Christopher Hitchens attacked the good nun as "a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud.")

I should first say that, as a prominent critic of America's approaches to alcohol, drugs, and the "disease" of addiction, people might wonder what I have to say about South Africa. My grandfather had five brothers who (unlike my grandfather, who came here) moved from Russia to South Africa, where an uncle of mine was a prominent psychiatrist. I spent a year in the country, writing my Ph.D. dissertation on the 1970 South African general election, which formed the basis for an article published (with Stanley Morse) in the American Political Science Review.

Meanwhile, South Africa is most likely to be in the news -- after the failing health of the great Mandela -- because of the upcoming murder trial of Oscar Pistorious, who shot and killed his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in the bathroom of his home. Pistorious achieved international acclaim as the Olympics "blade runner" who ran on springy prosthetic "legs."

South Africa -- and Pistorious -- don't seem to be taking the whole murder case too seriously. Pistorious doesn't contest that he shot and killed his girlfriend -- who reported that he was prone to violent outbursts and that the two had been "fighting a lot." Nonetheless, he is out on bail and training and competing internationally. The trial has been postponed until August, and the authorities would consider it a victory to begin it before the end of the year.

Here's what Pistorious' case tells us about South Africa, as described in Time:

South Africa is an armed camp, where well-off whites live in residential enclaves surrounded by private security professionals while arming themselves to the teeth to protect themselves against the mass of impoverished black Africans. This is the basis for Pistorious' defense, since it is so plausible that he might fear intruders in a country rife with crime and thus he was armed to the teeth and at hair-trigger readiness.

The prosecution faces significant difficulties in bringing the case, because of the rampant corruption and violence associated with the police force (along with its ineptness). The lead detective in the case, Hilton Botha, was replaced following his initial testimony, which revealed not only many errors by the investigators, but also that Botha faced murder charges for shooting a group of Black Africans traveling in a minivan bus.

Mandela's party, the ANC, has been involved in a non-stop series of scandals in its nearly decade-long reign over the country, disillusioning supporters and Mandela admirers. Along with the discouraging idea that the leading black African government exists mainly to enrich its rulers, the troubling ANC has emerged as a principal supporter of Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe. (We in the United States tend to look askance on elected officials in their fourth decade as heads of state.)

While we may all admire Mandela inordinately, he is not a happy example about how much a great man can bring his country along with him. South Africa is imploding, a ramshackle oligarchy racked with crime, resembling nothing so much as a futuristic "District 9."