1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
PoliticsSouth Africa

30 years on, South Africa's dream of unity lies shattered

Martina Schwikowski
April 27, 2024

Thirty years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is looking back on a democratic but deeply divided society. Political divisions have fueled a growing disappointment with Nelson Mandela's liberation party, the ANC.

A sea of corrugated iron huts on the outskirts of Cape Town, with the silhouette of Table Mountain in the distant background
The majority of the population in the rich industrial state of South Africa continue to live in povertyImage: Hoch Zwei/IMAGO

As a newly democratic country, South Africa got off to a euphoric start with its first free elections in 1994.

People queued up for hours to cast their votes, full of hope, optimism and joy. That positive spirit continued as Nelson Mandela was elected president after spending 27 years in prison.

The African National Congress (ANC), Mandela's political party and former anti-apartheid movement, came into power, ending not only white minority rule but centuries of colonialist mentality. It's still in power today.

Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie Mandela after his release from prison, with his clenched fist as a sign of resistance
Nelson Mandela — pictured here with his former wife, Winnie — was finally released from prison in 1990Image: epa/picture alliance/dpa

However, looking back on the past 30 years, the assessment on the state of Mandela's "rainbow nation" is sober: The economy in the Cape of Good Hope is ailing, society is still divided along racial lines and people feel their politicians don't understand them.

Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor has kept growing — despite the fact that the ANC made the issue a central concern when it came to power in 1994. Frustration over these shattered dreams runs deep.

Progress — on paper

However, there have also been some important achievements, at least on paper.

Fredson Guilengue, program director for Southern Africa at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Johannesburg, said the country has at least "succeeded in introducing one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, establishing an independent judiciary, a free press, free and fair elections."

He told DW that LGBTQ+ rights, an expanded education system and greater access to electricity, social housing and social services for the poor are among the key milestones achieved in the past three decades.

South Africa: Winning the fight against apartheid

Guilengue also highlighted the fact that South Africa's constitution was the first in the world to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and that the country became the fifth nation in the world — and first in Africa — to allow marriage for same-sex partners.

Corruption at the highest levels

In addition to these major gains, South Africa has also built up a robust and active civil society over that last 30 years that is vocal in defending its rights in the face of adversity.

In recent years, however, that adversity appears to largely come from the top tiers of government. Power struggles and reports of corrupt interests within the ruling ANC have repeatedly set the country back.

A grandmother and her grandchild are seen wrapped in blankets, huddled around a candle in the dark, with a bonfire next to them to keep warm
Electricity cuts became a crisis for South Africans in 2023, with power failures lasting up to 12 hours a dayImage: Siphiwe Sibeko/REUTERS

These dynamics have trickled down to affect everyone in the country, regardless of race or income: high unemployment, crime and poverty, as well as the rising cost of living, are among the chief issues that continue to plague South Africa.

Youth unemployment is a major issue, said Guilengue. Nearly half of the population under the age of 34 is considered unemployed, and this has further fueled a sense of social instability, reinforcing xenophobic sentiments and resulting in dozens of deaths over the years.

Most South Africans now have access to running water and electricity at home. But power cuts — caused by reported corruption within the state energy supplier Eskom — have kept the lights off for many across the country for hours each day over the past decade.

Disappointment with politics and politicians

The ruling ANC has steadily lost trust over the years due to all these social grievances and other issues.

In the upcoming May elections, in which President Cyril Ramaphosa is running for a second term, the party could fall below the 50% majority threshold for the first time, forcing it to enter a power-sharing arrangement with an opposition partner.

According to economic analyst Daniel Silke, there is a sense deep disappointment about the perceived inability of the main liberation party to run the country.

Silke told DW that the ANC seems "incapable of upholding the ethical standards set by Nelson Mandela" in particular.

"The efforts to bring people together as a nation, which were really palpable in the early Mandela years, have evaporated," he added. 

South Africans take stock of Mandela's legacy

Crash under former President Jacob Zuma

South Africa slid into its most serious crisis in the past three decades under the leadership of former President Jacob Zuma, who was in office from 2009 until his dismissal in 2018.

During this time, Zuma began plundering state coffers, bringing the nation to the brink of bankruptcy with the help of his extensive network of cadres both within the ANC and outside the party.

Under Zuma's leadership, the neologism "tenderpreneurship" was coined, describing government contracts — tenders — being handed over to eager entrepreneurs who rarely even pretended not to have family or friendship ties to those in power.

South Africa has not recovered from this experience. On the contrary, clientelism and nepotism seem to now be enshrined in the country's culture, said Silke.

"There is a great deal of unease among the population," he said, adding that the subsequent collapse of infrastructure and logistics with a stagnating economy due to such irregular dealings is a daily reminder of the decline of what was once the richest industrialized country in Africa.

Deep wounds from the apartheid era

Critical observers, however,have also stressed that not every social ailment can be attributed to the mismanagement of the country under the ANC.

Verne Harris, executive director of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, wondered "why we didn't do better," after the advent of democracy, questioning whether three decades are enough time to erase the trauma and the legacy of the long and profound processes of colonialism and apartheid.

"Some young people [now] say Mandela was a traitor," said Harris, referring to promises made of a better life in a united country.

"We have to deal with these discourses and rethink some of the compromises we have made."

Johannesburg's skyline with various sky scrapers in the Central Business District
Infrastructure in South Africa's economic hub Johannesburg is dilapidated due to massive corruption and crimeImage: Graham de Lacy/Greatstock/IMAGO

"We were quick to believe that we could fix things in a short space of time," said Harris. "In some cases, this has led to quick-fix solutions that have not served us well."

Cape of (Good) Hope

Beyond its many domestic issues, South Africa wants to position itself as an advocate against oppression on a global level — especially after its decades-long experience of apartheid, said Guilengue.

The country is leading peacemaking initiatives, sending troops to countries in the region to quell unrest and taking high-profile cases to international tribunals. At the end of December 2023, South Africa accused Israel of violating international treaties — chiefly the UN's Genocide Convention — during the conflict in Gaza, defending its case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

BRICS Summit 2023: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa surrounded by the leaders of Brazil, China, India and Russia's foreign minister
South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa (center) hosted the BRICS summit in 2023Image: Prime Ministers Office/Zuma Press/picture alliance

Guilengue believes that despite its many problems, South Africa has made progress on the global diplomacy stage. It has come to understand that Africa's traditional partnerships with the West, built on centuries of colonialism, were not balanced, nor were they serving the best interest of the country, and therefore needed to change.

"For this reason, South Africa is pushing for reforms in the UN Security Council, and is a member of the BRICS bloc, which claims to fight for fair rules and economic partnerships," said Guilengue.

"Perhaps we will see a more active South Africa in the future, both in Africa and worldwide."

Edited by: Sertan Sanderson