South Africa at 30: Reflections on democracy, progress and challenges

President Cyril Ramaphosa will address Freedom Day celebrations to mark 30 years of democracy. Picture: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS

President Cyril Ramaphosa will address Freedom Day celebrations to mark 30 years of democracy. Picture: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS

Published Apr 22, 2024


By Lebo Mosebua, Zizipho Masiza and Sarah Ntlemo

South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994 marked a historic turning point in its history, ending decades of apartheid and ushering in an era of freedom and equality. As South Africa commemorates three decades of democracy in 2024, it’s a fitting moment to reflect on the nation’s journey.

From the euphoria of the first democratic elections to the realities of today, the path traversed has been one of triumphs and tribulations, progress and setbacks. The advent of democracy in 1994 was a watershed moment, marking the end of apartheid and the beginning of a new era characterized by freedom, equality, and reconciliation. For the first time, all South Africans, regardless of race, could participate in shaping the future of their nation.

The promise of democracy brought hope for a brighter, more inclusive future. In 1994, South Africa’s population stood at approximately 40 million people. Fast forward to 2024, and the population has grown significantly, with estimates placing it at over 62 million, according to the Census 2021.

This population growth reflects various factors, including improved healthcare, reduced mortality rates, and immigration trends. Despite this growth, South Africa continues to grapple with issues such as unemployment, poverty, and inequality, which impact the well-being of its citizens.

In the intervening years, South Africa has made significant strides. Economic growth, though uneven, has lifted millions out of poverty. The expansion of social services, including healthcare and education, has improved the lives of many. Reconciliation efforts have sought to heal the wounds of the past and foster national unity.

As South Africa celebrates this significant milestone, it’s crucial to engage in introspection. Despite notable progress, the nation continues to grapple with enduring challenges. Economic inequality looms large, perpetuating the marginalisation of millions who remain excluded from the fruits of economic growth.

Particularly concerning is the pervasive issue of unemployment, which disproportionately affects the youth and threatens to undermine the gains of democracy.

As of the fourth quarter of 2023, South Africa’s unemployment rate stood at a staggering 32.1%. Alarmingly, a substantial majority of the unemployed population lacked education beyond the matric (grade 12) level, further exacerbating the cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement.

Conversely, only around 34% of the unemployed population had completed their matric year, underscoring the significance of education in addressing unemployment and fostering economic inclusion.

These statistics not only highlight the scale of the challenge but also underscore the urgent need for targeted interventions to address systemic inequalities and create pathways to economic opportunity for all South Africans.

Failure to do so not only jeopardises the sustainability of democracy but also perpetuates social divisions and undermines the nation’s potential for inclusive growth and prosperity.

GDP and Economic Growth:

Since the advent of democracy, South Africa has experienced fluctuations in its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and economic growth rates.

In 1994, the country’s GDP was around $136 billion, and its economy was transitioning from apartheid-era policies to ones that aimed to promote inclusive growth.

Over the past 30 years, South Africa has faced both periods of economic expansion and contraction, influenced by global economic trends, domestic policy choices, and structural challenges.

By 2024, the GDP has grown, albeit at a slower pace compared to initial post-apartheid years.

The average growth forecast for the medium term is 1.6%, which is marginally higher compared to the previous forecast of 1.4% stated in the 2023 Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS).

This suggests some optimism or potential for growth in the coming years. The data highlights that South Africa’s GDP growth has been lacklustre, with an average of only 0.8% since 2012.

Such a low rate of economic growth is insufficient for addressing the country’s high levels of unemployment and poverty.

Despite efforts to address unemployment and stimulate economic development, disparities in wealth distribution persist, hindering progress towards equitable prosperity.

Disparities Faced by South Africans:

While South Africa has made significant strides in advancing democracy and human rights, deep-rooted disparities persist, posing challenges to social cohesion and inclusive development. These disparities manifest in various forms, including:

– Economic Inequality

Despite the country’’s wealth, a significant portion of the population continues to live in poverty, lacking access to basic services, education, and economic opportunities. The gap between the rich and poor remains wide, exacerbating social tensions and hindering efforts to reduce poverty and inequality.

– Racial Inequities

The legacy of apartheid continues to shape social and economic dynamics in South Africa, with black South Africans disproportionately affected by poverty, unemployment, and limited access to resources.

While progress has been made in addressing historical injustices through policies such as Affirmative Action and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE), racial disparities persist, underscoring the need for sustained efforts to promote racial equality and reconciliation.

– Spatial Divides

South Africa remains spatially segregated, with urban areas experiencing rapid development and investment, while rural communities face persistent challenges such as inadequate infrastructure, limited access to services, and high levels of unemployment.

Addressing spatial divides requires targeted interventions aimed at promoting inclusive growth and equitable development across regions.

Moreover, the promise of democracy has at times been overshadowed by governance failures, corruption, and political instability.

The erosion of democratic institutions and the rule of law undermine the foundations of the state, threatening the very essence of democracy. The voices of ordinary citizens are often drowned out by the clamour of vested interests, leaving many feeling disillusioned and disenfranchised.

Looking Ahead

Looking ahead, as South Africa commemorates 30 years of democracy, it stands at a pivotal juncture. While celebrating the strides made, it must confront persistent challenges with unwavering resolve. Strengthening democratic institutions, fostering transparency, and ensuring accountability are imperative to fulfilling the democratic promise.

For South Africa to truly thrive, it must cultivate an inclusive economy that empowers all its citizens. This necessitates collaborative efforts from the public, government, and corporate sectors to champion social justice and equality. By prioritising inclusive growth and fortifying democratic foundations, South Africa can pave the way for a brighter future.

Reconciliation and nation-building remain paramount, serving as cornerstones for healing historical wounds and forging a unified identity. Acknowledging progress while acknowledging ongoing disparities is crucial.

To achieve a more equitable and prosperous society, sustained action is required to address wealth gaps, disparities in opportunity, and access to services.

By embracing democratic principles and prioritizing equality and social justice, South Africa can overcome its challenges and chart a course toward a more promising tomorrow for all its citizens.

* Mosebua is Manager, Masiza is Operations Specialist, Ntlemo is a Masters Student and Researcher, They are all at the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg

** The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL.