JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Across the street from Nelson Mandela’s former home, the hulking Alexandra Heritage Center stands empty and abandoned.
The ambitious project to attract tourists was never finished. It’s a visible reminder of mismanagement, waste and empty promises in Alexandra, one of many impoverished black townships in South Africa ravaged by unemployment and drugs.
Swazi Ntshingla, 43, lives near the one-room shack that Mandela, apartheid struggle icon and South Africa’s former president, rented in the early 1940s. Today, she is frustrated with the lack of opportunities for the jobless youth.
Pointing to a vacant building across the street, attached to the heritage center, she says: “It causes problems,” explaining that this is where teenagers go to smoke a drug called “nyaope.”
It’s a highly addictive and damaging cocktail drug that can include heroin, marijuana, rat poison, anti-retrovirals used to treat HIV/AIDS, and crystal methamphetamine, known locally as “tik.”
Gangs and violence plague Alexandra, and some locals say that life is only getting worse with the drug epidemic that is plaguing township youth.
South Africa’s population is largely young, and out of work. Census figures show that 72 percent of South Africa’s unemployed are younger than 34, while 65 percent of black youth are without jobs.
Overall, unemployment in South Africa is officially at 36.7 percent when you include workers who have simply given up looking for a job.
Mandela was 23 years old when he moved to “Alex,” as it is known, one of the oldest townships in South Africa, a slum near the wealthy areas of northern Johannesburg.
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Young, broke and seeking his fortune in the big city, he moved into a one-room, dirt-floor shack rented from the Xhoma family on Seventh Avenue.
“Life in Alexandra was exhilarating and precarious,” Mandela would later write in his memoirs from prison. “Its atmosphere was alive, its spirit adventurous, its people resourceful.”
But in 1941, Alexandra was also dangerous, “desperately poor” and “desperately overcrowded,” he wrote. “Every square foot was occupied by either a ramshackle house or a tin-roofed shack.”
It is a description of Alexandra that could still fit today, more than 7 decades later.
Ntshingla said the area around Mandela’s former home has been improved with paved roads, but little else despite many promises over the years.
The room Mandela rented is marked with a small plaque and a badly weather-beaten signboard. Garbage strews the dirt yard around the home.
“The house is not looking good,” Ntshingla said. “We should not have the yard looking like this. A lot should have been done.”
In comparison, in Soweto, the famed township south of Johannesburg where Mandela would later live, the change is visible. Parts of Soweto have become virtually middle class, with upscale malls and health clubs.
Vilakazi Street, where Mandela lived in a matchbox house with his first wife Evelyn and later his second wife Winnie, has boomed thanks to a steady stream of foreign tourists, and local entrepreneurs opening restaurants and guest lodges. The area was given a facelift ahead of the 2010 soccer World Cup, with proper sidewalks, landscaping and visitor-friendly signage.
At a youth drug and alcohol center in Alexandra, Emmanuel Mangena, 40, said that lack of opportunities and the easy availability of drugs are the township’s biggest problems.
“It’s killing people,” he said.
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Mangena, who was born and raised in Alexandra, said Mandela’s connection to the township is “a source of pride.” The drug treatment center is located in a church where Mandela, an avid boxer, is reputed to have once trained.
But grinding poverty and a lack of basic services are continuing problems. In some parts of Alexandra, up to 20 families share one toilet, Mangena said. The electricity goes out every day.
“Poverty is very rife here because the people don’t work,” he said. “I grew here, I’m used to it. But things are changing from bad to worse.”
In a recent speech, President Jacob Zuma said that in past decades black youth would fight against white minority rule for freedom and a better life.
The fight today is against alcohol and drug abuse, he said, with youth becoming “slaves of drugs such as nyaope,” and worsening social problems such as crime and domestic violence.
“We must fight the scourge with the same vigor that we fought apartheid,” Zuma said. “We must today declare drug and alcohol abuse as the enemies of our freedom and democracy.”