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In a nice turn of events, after weeks of expecting the worst, Nelson Mandela is slowly improving, though still in a South African hospital. His illness has, though, focused the country on a time when the 95-year-old anti-apartheid hero will not be with us.

Mandela has been a unifying force in that country, particularly for the ruling African National Congress, and there's concern that xenophobia, racism and political infighting may grow once the father of the nation passes away.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: From the township of Alexandra in Johannesburg, shack-dwellers can look across a ravine to the spires of Sandton City, which houses the most lavish shopping mall in sub-Saharan Africa.

Alex - as this slum of roughly a half-a-million people is known - was home to Nelson Mandela when he first moved to Johannesburg in 1941. The small house where Mandela rented a room is marked with a plaque, but the yard is littered with trash and construction debris. The concrete wall around the compound is collapsing, and someone has spray-painted do not pee here in Zulu slang across the front of it.

WELLINGTON NZUZA: South Africa is poor, brother. They're so poor, poor.

BEAUBIEN: Wellington Nzuza is leaning against the compound wall. He waves his hand at the men hanging around on the street corner, and says the biggest problem in South Africa right now is people don't have work.

BRIAN RAPHELA: Every people you see there, no work, no job, no nothing, you see. South Africa is poor.

BEAUBIEN: Across the street, 26-year-old Brian Raphela calls the African National Congress corrupt. He says Nelson Mandela's former-liberation-movement-turned-ruling-political-party is now just making a small group of its own members rich.

RAPHELA: There's nothing they doing for us. They only do it for themselves. If you can check them, they're driving big cars. They're living in fancy houses. But me, I don't even have a place to stay.

BEAUBIEN: Raphela is part of a growing group of unemployed youth that's disillusioned with their parents' revolution. Unemployment in South Africa officially sits at 25 percent, but many people suggest that it's far higher.

Raphela says he steals to survive.

RAPHELA: Even now, when I look at you, I think of snatching your bag so that I can buy something to eat.

BEAUBIEN: As much as Raphela dislikes the ruling ANC, he has even more animosity towards African immigrants from Zimbabwe, Somalia, Nigeria and other parts of the continent who he says are stealing South Africans' jobs.

RAPHELA: Each and every day, they come here in numbers, maybe a hundred, every day. Every day. Maybe in one shack, you get maybe 15 people in a small shack.

BEAUBIEN: He says the ANC, starting with Mandela, allowed these other Africans to flood into the country. But he says that's going to change when Mandela is no longer alive.

RAPHELA: You see, when Mandela dies, watch out. Xenophobia is going to come up again.

BEAUBIEN: And migrants in the country say they, too, worry that xenophobia will again rear its head after Mandela passes away. In 2008, attacks across South Africa left dozens of migrants dead and hundreds injured. Earlier this year, there were more assaults on immigrants.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

BEAUBIEN: Outside Nelson Mandela's hospital in Pretoria, a group of Ethiopian refugees has come to pay their respects to the ailing former president.

Abdurahman Musa Jibro says Mandela has been the moral conscience of the nation, and he's worried that refugees will lose some measure of protection once Mandela is gone.

ABDURAHMAN MUSA JIBRO: Actually, we feel it. We'll not be safe. That is what the majority of the foreigners - especially the refugees, the asylum seekers - they think that way.

BEAUBIEN: It's clear that South Africa right now is facing daunting social and economic challenges. There's the growing gap between the rich and the poor. There have been divisive calls by some black groups to exclude South Africans of Indian descent from affirmative action programs.

One of the gold miners unions is demanding a 100 percent pay hike in ongoing contract talks with gold producers.

And some young people - such as Raphela in Alexandra - say the new democratic South Africa ushered in by Nelson Mandela two decades ago still hasn't lifted them out of poverty.

ANC stalwart Ahmed Kathrada says South Africans expectations about the pace of change have been unrealistic.

AHMED KATHRADA: When President Mandela got elected, there were people who were saying: Where's our house? The next day, where's the house? Where's this? Where's the proper schools?

BEAUBIEN: The ANC government has launched huge projects to deliver clean water and electricity to the poorest of the poor. Kathrada notes that racial integration has occurred at many schools. Blacks now have significant stakes in most South African businesses. And Kathrada says the ANC had the daunting task of guiding South Africa from white minority rule to a multi-racial democracy.

KATHRADA: When we came to government, the civil service, the army, the police, industry, agriculture, everything was white, in white hands. We did not even know how to run a town council. We never voted. We never saw the ballot box.

BEAUBIEN: Despite the calls for more rapid change, Kathrada says the country has done a reasonably good job of making that transition. He's confident that even after Mandela passes away, the vision of Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement for a more just, democratic South Africa will endure. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Johannesburg.

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