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South Africa's recent deadly attacks against immigrants have put a spotlight on that nation's shrinking economy. Many contend that the violence is aggravated by too few jobs, poor pay and too little opportunity for black South Africans 14 years after apartheid ended.

The latest story in our series examining today's South Africa, NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault takes a look the economic realities governing day-to-day life there.

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Unidentified Woman: Talk Radio 702.

Mr. JOHN ROBBIE (Radio Talk Show Host): Twenty-one past…

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Often provocative early morning talk show host John Robbie gets a lot of calls but never like the desperate one he got from a cardiologist in a hospital emergency room during a power blackout called load shedding.

Mr. ROBBIE: I mean, he was in the middle of treating a man who had a heart attack. Imagine the situation. Now, because of load shedding, the man's life was at risk. We contacted Eskom(ph) and they said they simply couldn't do anything.

HUNTER-GAULT: But Robbie kept at the power company, which eventually returned power to that hospital and the doctor was able to save the patient's life. This drama unfolded during the massive countrywide blackouts the country's utility company said were the result of dwindling power supplies.

Eskom officials warned the government ten years ago of the need to invest in new plants to accommodate growing demand but even the government admits it didn't heed the advice. The crisis hit the country's major income earner, its minerals industry, hardest, creating havoc on the world's markets and leading to a devaluation of the rand, the country's currency.

But analysts argue a major part of the problem was a departure of skilled, experienced workers, many if not most of whom were white, as government policy put a priority on hiring the historically disadvantaged. Since the emergency, Eskom has been rehiring many of their retirees.

Economic analyst Azar Jamine of Econometrix says the power problems could have long lasting affects on the country and the region.

Mr. AZAR JAMINE (Economic Analyst, Econometrix): People are questioning whether the fact that we cannot even provide enough power for the country does not mean that the country is headed downwards in the longer term.

HUNTER-GAULT: Under President Thabo Mbeki's government, conservative fiscal policies have resulted in growth rates heading towards four percent. Jamine says that's good but not good enough.

Mr. JAMINE: Clearly South Africa has major challenges and really needs to attain a growth rate of some 80 percent per (unintelligible) in order to absorb the vast number of unemployed. The unemployment rate officially is currently around 25 percent, which is one of the highest in the world.

HUNTER-GAULT: Jesse Duarte, the spokesperson for the ruling African National Congress Party is blunt when asked about the shortage of skilled labor.

Ms. JESSE DUARTE (Spokesperson, African National Congress Party): There is a serious crisis.

HUNTER-GAULT: In response the government has initiated emergency public works programs and other initiatives aimed at addressing the skilled shortage. But it doesn't mean much yet for the vast majority of poor people like 28-year-old Nandi Sibewu, who cares for her two small children and four brothers.

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HUNTER-GAULT: I find Nandi scrubbing rice kernels stuck to the bottom of the small pan used to cook last night's dinner. She stands at a sink in the corner of the sparsely-furnished house provided by the government for families earning less than the U.S. dollar equivalent of $50 a month.

Nandi gets a child support grant of about $26 a month - all the family of seven has to live on.

Ms. NANDI SIBEWU (South African Resident): (Foreign language spoken)

HUNTER-GAULT: In her native Posa language she tells me most of the child welfare is used for buying rice, corn porridge and potatoes, school transportation and electricity.

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HUNTER-GAULT: Across the street from Nandi's tiny house, a huge construction site that may offer some hope for South Africa's economy.

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HUNTER-GAULT: Workers are building a multimillion-dollar high-speed train linking commercial and administrative centers in and near Johannesburg. The project is expected to generate some 18,000 jobs over the next 20 years, with major lines being ready when the country hosts the 2010 World Cup.

That premier sports event, along with a newly created and expanded middle class, has led to a building boom in Johannesburg and around the country. That and the global demand for South Africa's commodities, such as gold, platinum and coal, and the country's ability to grow its own food, says Azar Jamine, means:

Mr. JAMINE: It's not a train smash in the shorter term.

HUNTER-GAULT: But for people like Nandi Subewu, it is a train smash. She's barely hanging on. Her brothers are thinking about dropping out of school to search for work. But with jobs for the unskilled and uneducated so hard to come by, their chances are slim. Their plight, like the tens of thousands of others, is South Africa's ticking time bomb.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR News, Alexandra, South Africa.

SIMON: And you can hear other reports on South Africa at a crossroads at NPR.org.

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