February 11, 1990, was the day for which millions of black South Africans had been waiting – for decades.
On that cloudless Sunday afternoon, Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison flanked by his wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his right hand raised and fist clenched. A sea of excited supporters held back by police had lined up, all trying to get a glimpse of their just-freed leader who had spent 27 years in prison for fighting against the country’s discriminatory apartheid system of racial segregation.
Tens of thousands more descended on the streets of Cape Town to witness and be part of the historic day. Across the world, millions more were glued on their television sets.
Mandela was finally a free man – and at that moment, South Africa changed forever.
Having guided the country through a dramatic transition that marked the end of apartheid, Mandela in 1994 became South Africa’s first black president. The inspirational and globally revered leader stepped down after serving one term as head of state and officially retired from public life in 2004. He died aged 95 on December 5, 2013.
Thirty years from the day Mandela was freed, where does South Africa stand?
Since the end of white-minority rule in 1994, South Africa has held six peaceful democratic elections – all free and fair and all won by Mandela’s party, the African National Congress (ANC).
“The political change the country has witnessed … is unprecedented. It cannot be underestimated,” Dale McKinley, a political analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“Political space has opened up and gone are the days where people were arrested for expressing their political views.”
The country also has one of the most vibrant media landscapes on the continent, with media watchdog Reporters without Borders ranking South Africa 31 out of 180 countries in its 2019 global press freedom index.
Economic boom, poverty gap
South Africa is the continent’s most industrialised country, with its gross domestic product (GDP) rising from $139.8bn in 1994 to $368.9bn in 2018, according to the World Bank.
“The record growth the country witnessed after apartheid was partly due to the boom in the global commodity prices. On average, the economy grew about 3 percent every year,” economist Azar Jamine told Al Jazeera.
The transition to democracy also South Africa being able to embark on infrastructure projects by borrowing funds from international financial institutions – in the years before the end of apartheid, most institutions refused to lend its government money.
But in recent years, the economy has been hit by a slump amid high unemployment and dips in key sectors. Moody’s is the last of three main global rating firms to rate South Africa’s debt at investment level, and it is due to review the rating next month after downgrading the outlook to negative last year.
In January, the International Monetary Fund said it expected Africa’s second-biggest economy to grow at 0.8 percent this year, down from a previous forecast for 1.1 percent growth. For 2021, it forecast growth of 1.0 percent, down from an earlier prediction for 1.4 percent growth.
At the same time, the country has still been mired by profound inequality, seen by many as one of the legacies of apartheid.
“Inequality is high, persistent, and has increased since 1994,” the World Bank said in a 2018 report. The top 1 percent of South Africans own 70.9 percent of the country’s wealth, it added, while the bottom 60 percent hold just the 7 percent.
The body also said South Africa has the highest Gini index in the world: 63 percent. The index measures a country’s wealth distribution – the closer a value is to zero the more equal the residents of that country are.
South Africa has made progress in reducing poverty since its transition to democracy – 18.8 percent of South Africans were poor in 2015, following a drop from 33.8 percent in 1996, according to the World Bank. Yet progress is slowing in recent years, with the $1.90 a day poverty rate increasing from 16.8 percent to 18.8 percent between 2011 and 2015.
“On the socioeconomic front, little has changed. In fact, things have gotten worse when it comes to basic services like healthcare, housing and education,” McKinley said.
Healthcare, education – and corruption
In 2018, the government spent $13.6bn, or 12 percent of the country’s budget, on healthcare. The figure marked a 7 percent increase on the previous year. Still, healthcare remains out of reach for many South Africans.
“Healthcare is the third-largest item of government expenditure, and yet there is a fundamental disjoint between what we are spending on healthcare and the health outcomes of our citizens,” President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged in 2018.
“It pained me, as it should every citizen of this country, to hear how this most fundamental of rights, of access to healthcare services, has been impacted by the stench of corruption. Corruption in the health system is not a victimless crime. It targets the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.”
In its 2019 corruption perception index, Transparency International ranked South Africa 70 out of 180 countries.
Speaking at the FT Africa Summit in London last year, Ramaphosa said South Africa lost $34bn, about a 10th of the country’s GDP, to corruption during the decade that his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, was in power. Ramaphosa, who took office as president in 2018, was Zuma’s deputy for four years.
“Corruption is a huge problem in South Africa,” McKinley said. “It is deep and runs all the way from the top down to district level. But it is not out of control or unique to South Africa alone. With the right leadership, it can be contained.”
The education sector meanwhile is fairing better than healthcare, with primary school enrollment standing at 87 percent, according to the World Bank. Last year, the government spent about 17 percent of its budget on basic education, according to the presidency.
“We have made significant progress in making education accessible to the poor. Some 80 percent of schools are now no-fee schools, and nine million nutritious meals are served to learners throughout the country every school day,” Ramaphosa said in a speech last year during the handover of newly built primary schools.
But analysts say the country’s education system does not prepare graduates for the job market.
“Only about 15 percent of the schools in South Africa are outstanding. Eighty-five percent are weak at best. This has huge impact on our workforce and the quality of our output as a country,” Jamine said.
One of the key promises of the ANC after coming to power was to redistribute land – the country’s black majority were denied ownership rights under apartheid’s segregation laws.
The ANC followed a “willing seller, willing buyer” model through which the government bought white-owned farms for redistribution. However, progress has been slow and most of the farmland is still owned by white farmers.
At least 72 percent of the country’s arable land remains in the hands of whites, who make up less than 10 percent of the 58-million population, according to a 2017 land audit.
The country’s constitution should be changed to allow the government to start seizing land without compensation in certain circumstances, an advisory report recommended last year. The government has tasked a parliamentary committee to report back on the proposed changes to land reform laws before the end of March.
For Jamine, the economist, the country has come a long way but government needs to address the many shortcomings quickly if it is to keep its promises.
“The government is risking social revolution if it does not prioritise addressing the issues pressing the average South African that put it in office. People have had enough,” he said.