From the book: Book 6: Negotiation, Transition and Freedom commissioned by The Department of Education

The first ten years of South Africa’s democracy brought dramatic and rapid change. South Africa is respected as an example of an inspiring transition from the oppression of apartheid to the freedom of democracy. The transition, however, also unleashed hope, and with hope came new expectations. Even after a decade of freedom, some of these have not been met. The end of this first decade of freedom presents an ideal opportunity to take stock of the progress South Africa has made, as well as the challenges the country still faces.

The transition in South Africa over the last decade has included changes in the economy, government, agriculture, media, criminal justice system, delivery of critical services such as water and health care, race relations, institutions of the state(link to grade 6, Government and our society), education system, big business and even sport, as well as in the thinking and beliefs of ordinary people. This chapter will examine and describe the changes that have occurred in the country’s economy, in the way the country is organised politically, and in the way social development has unfolded.

What has been the nature of transformation?

With the adoption of the Interim Constitution in November 1993, South Africa shifted towards the construction of a new political, social and economic order. The transition involved political freedom for the Black majority who had been subjected first to colonial oppression (link to Grade 11, Colonialism, Capitalism and Conflict) and then, from 1948, to apartheid. At the same time, the transition was also about ridding South Africa of an authoritarian system of government and building a democratic system. There is also a third dimension of the post-apartheid transition - it was accompanied by opening the country’s economy to global competition and introducing policies consistent with the way in which capitalist economies are managed in other parts of the world.

“ Transformation” became the response of the new government to this triple challenge. This involved changing the appearance, content, orientation and direction of the state, society and economy that the country had inherited from the apartheid period. Indeed, the 2000 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report on South Africa notes:

The challenges of transition:

  • ensuring political freedom
  • building democratic   government and social equity
  • developing a new and vibrant economy

The response:

  • political transformation
  • social transformation
  • economic transformation

The central challenge is whether South Africa’s transformation will attain the objectives of human development for the majority of those who have been excluded from mainstream society. South Africa travelled a remarkable path in the 1990s. It avoided the civil war many had thought inevitable and, in six short years, established a new, democratic political order, buttressed by social and political stability. The rights and liberties enshrined in its Constitution have justifiably earned envy and admiration all over the world. Only a shadow of the legal edifice that supported the apartheid system remains 17(United Nations Development Programme, 2000: 5).

This chapter will not try to cover all aspects of the political, social and economic changes that have taken place since 1994. The focus will be on the impact of these changes on ordinary people.

What kind of obstacles did South Africa face in 1994?

The South Africa inherited by the post-apartheid government in 1994 presented both challenges and opportunities. At the political level, the apartheid state was not simply designed to service and maintain the apartheid policies of exclusion, segregation and oppression of the majority. Its institutions and leaders were not representative of all South Africa’s people. The apartheid state machinery was incredibly cumbersome, stretching from the central government in Pretoria to Black local authorities and the Bantustan system, as well as the various departments responsible for coloured and Indian “affairs”. Although certain parts of the state were efficient, this very decentralised system of government was very inefficient. Furthermore, the workings of the government were not at all transparent, with little room for freedom of information, a free press or open debate.

The provision of and access to basic social services were skewed against the Black majority. The economy failed to provide for the basic needs of citizens; millions of people were not supplied with accessible water, adequate sanitation or electricity. The same can be said about the state of the educational and health systems on the eve of 1994. Jakes Gerwel wrote about the challenges that the new government had to address in the area of education:

The challenges of educational reconstruction are enormous, since effective schooling has virtually collapsed in large sectors of the system. While parts of the racially fragmented education system have highly developed infrastructure and quality provision, the schooling system for the majority of the population is characterised by neglect and underprovision, with crippling shortages in such basic areas as classrooms, libraries, laboratories and textbooks, together with an undersupply of teachers. This discrepancy is graphically expressed in terms of the differential per capita spending on Blacks and Whites” 18(Gerwel, 1994: 82).

The health system was in no better shape. Besides the deep racial inequalities in the quality and quantity of health care available and the crisis in the administration of health facilities and personnel, South African health care was focused on the provision of curative medicine and capital-intensive technology rather than preventive medicine and primary health care.

The economy was also in shambles, having experienced no or negative growth for several years prior to 1994. In the 1960s South Africa’s economic growth had ranked as one of the best in the world, but in the early 1970s this growth started to decline, falling into a recession in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The problem of unemployment was beginning to manifest itself, and inflation ran into double figures for most of the early 1990s.

The apartheid system also gave rise to one of the most unequal societies in the world. Most studies of the extent of poverty in pre-1994 South Africa agree on one thing - the distribution of poverty in the country was primarily along racial lines, with women and people in the rural areas the most affected. The South Africa of 1994 was populated by what President Thabo Mbeki (bio) referred to as “two nations” - one White and privileged with a standard of living comparable to that of the industrialised countries, and the other Black and poor with a standard of living comparable to that of developing countries.

Economist Sampie Terreblanche contends that the poorest 60% of the African population became 50% poorer between 1975 and 2000. While the formal economy employed 5.3 million Africans (34% of all Africans) in 1970, by 2000 only 4.7 million (14% of the total African population) were employed (Terreblanche, 2003). These statistics clearly demonstrate that the direct actions of the government, as well as the changes in the economy towards less labour-intensive production and the general decline of the economy, resulted in increasingly dire levels of poverty among African South Africans.

Compounding all these problems were a number of threats posed to the transitional process. These threats fell into two categories. On the one hand, there were threats by White Afrikaner extremists who wanted a separate state for their volk (nation). These extremists organised themselves into armed militia groups and were preparing for a civil war. On the other hand were a spate of violent clashes, particularly in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and the Witwatersrand. There were different explanations for this violence. Some attributed it to ethnic hatred among Africans; others blamed it on the work of a government-sponsored Third Force, which was manipulating political differences in African communities with a view to destabilising the negotiations and the transition process itself.

Although these are only some of the obstacles post-apartheid South Africa faced, it is clear that the challenges were serious. There was certainly a need to change the laws, institutions and leadership of the government.

How did the new government plan to transform South Africa?

The political freedom that the 1994 elections brought to the majority of South Africans created hope and an expectation that life would improve for everyone. The changes intended to benefit ordinary South Africans after 1994 can be grouped into three categories - political, social and economic.

The new government came into office with a transformation plan, which became known as the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). This plan intended to:

  • create 2.5 million jobs in ten years;
  • build one million low-cost houses by the year 2000;
  • provide electricity to 2.5 million homes by the year 2000;
  • provide water and sewage systems to one million households;
  • redistribute 30% of arable agricultural land to Black farmers within five years;
  • shift the health system from curative services to primary health care, with free medical services at state facilities for children under six years and for pregnant mothers;
  • provide ten years of compulsory, free education as well as revising the curriculum, reducing class sizes and instituting adult basic education and training programmes; and
  • democratise and restructure state institutions to reflect the racial, class and gender composition of society.

The RDP was translated into government policy in the form of a White Paper. Two years later, in 1996, the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) programme document was released as a strategy to be employed in the implementation of the RDP goals. The essence of GEAR lay in an attempt to find a balance between meeting the basic needs of the people and finding the resources to finance those needs. The argument of the government was that one could not borrow money to provide the people with the basics, because the country would be indebted and forced to adopt stringent measures that would bring hardship to the poor. The country, they argued, should generate enough resources by growing the economy and maximising the collection of tax revenue. However, the critics of the GEAR strategy argued that the plan was a departure from RDP goals and was going to cost the country a great deal.

What have been the fruits of freedom?

A democratic political framework

How has the country changed since 1994? One of the most important political changes in post-1994 South Africa was the translation of the 1993 Interim Constitution into a final Constitution, complete with a Bill of Rights that guarantees economic and social rights such as the provision of land, adequate housing, education and health facilities.

A framework was built within which the needs and interests of the majority are heeded, primarily through Parliament(link to grade 6, Government and our society - Parliament). The protection of the freedoms and rights of individuals can be guaranteed via mechanisms such as the Human Rights Commission and the Constitutional Court. At the same time, the move from an authoritarian to a democratic system involved the creation of opportunities for popular participation in the politics of the country. This included the lifting of restrictions on political parties and the freeing of political prisoners, as well as the chance for civil society(link to grade 6, Government and our society - Civil Soceity) organisations to become actively involved in mainstream political life.

Reconciliation and nation building

Reconciliation and nation building were also important parts of the transition. The new Constitution, one unifying flag and one national anthem became the building blocks of this important mission. Through sport, and in particularly soccer and rugby, South Africans who had previously been divided by apartheid began to see themselves as one nation. When President Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar - the victorious White captain of the national rugby team - jointly lifted the World Cup in 1995, South Africans of all races celebrated a national victory. When asked about the event, Pienaar echoed the view of many South Africans, “Destiny brought South Africa the Rugby World Crown”.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established in 1996. The TRC revealed another side of life in South Africa. Radio and television stations broadcast the stories of abominable human rights abuses into households across the country. More dramatically, it gave all South Africans a very clear picture of the inhumane nature and extent of abuse under apartheid.

The TRC ensured that the conspiracy of silence and denial was forever broken. Suppressed truths about the past were brought into the open and acknowledged. At the same time, these hearings provided many victims with an opportunity to make their voices heard and to have their personal torment recognised. Undeniably a traumatic ordeal, the process proved a truly healing experience for many individuals. For a small minority of these victims the truth about the suffering of their families came to the fore, while for others locating the bodies of loved ones finally allowed the ghosts of the past to be put to rest.

While many of those responsible for apartheid atrocities will never be identified, and while some have managed to evade sentencing either through the amnesty process or failed prosecutions, the TRC did proclaim apartheid a crime against humanity. The TRC also recognised various structures of the apartheid state as the primary perpetrators of gross human rights violations. Furthermore, the controversial sector hearings of the TRC drove home the notion that responsibility for apartheid human rights violations rests with all those who contributed to the creation of an environment in which human rights were violated.

The TRC managed to assign some responsibility, determine some truths, and document a large part of the gross human rights violations that happened during apartheid. It also provided reparations to some victims and awarded amnesty to some perpetrators. Most importantly, though, it provided South Africans with an opportunity to reflect upon and engage with the country’s past. In doing that, it opened the dialogue to finding ways to face the future.

Equity and social justice

The contributions of the TRC and various other initiatives have allowed South Africans to travel a considerable way down the road of reconciliation. However, reconciliation and nation building had to be accompanied by processes aimed at correcting racially motivated imbalances of the past through the application of the principles of equity and social justice. It is here that social development becomes crucial.

Measures were put in place to address the backlog in the provision of water, electricity, health care, housing, land, education and employment opportunities for African, Coloured and Indian South Africans. The two-pronged strategy involved increasing the resources available for the provision of these services, while at the same time improving the efficiency with which they were delivered. The responsibility to provide these services is shared among the national, provincial and local spheres of government(link to grade 6, Government and our society - Government).

In its 2001 Mid-term Report to the Nation 20, the government summarised the progress as follows:

  • Water: A free basic water policy has been introduced. Since 1994, more than seven million South Africans have been given access to free basic water.
  • Electricity: Since 1994, 3.48 million electricity grid connections have been made.
  • Land: The pace of land restitution has dramatically increased. By the end of 2001 the number of claim settlements was 29 000.
  • Housing: A total of 1.2 million houses have been built or are under construction.
  • Education: In 2001, over 20% of the national budget was allocated to education. Combined with improved learning and teaching, one result is that the matriculation pass rate increased to 61% in 2000.
  • Social grants: The number of people benefiting from the Child Support Grant went up from 28 000 in 1999 to more than 1.1 million in July 2000. About 65 000 more children gain access to the Grant every month. Government planned to register three million children for the Grant by 2005, but thanks to more awareness and improved efforts by the Public Service it is estimated that this target will be met by the end of 2003.

There is no doubt that there has been a significant improvement in the living conditions of many ordinary people; yet the recently-released 2001 Census figures reveal that only 32% of the population has access to clean water in their homes, 13% of the population have no toilet facilities, while 20% still use wood for cooking. Only 64% live in formal dwellings. Moreover, 53% of the South African population still accounts for less than 10% of total consumption, while 15% of the South African population owns 85% of the land. It is clear that inequality continues to exist in South Africa.

The dire existence of many South Africans ten years after the first non-racial elections is demonstrated by the words of Emma Makhaza, who spoke at the 1998 Poverty Hearings:

“I am having seven children and nothing to depend on. I am making bricks and sometimes it rains and then I can’t do it. And I collect food and take it to people. I fetch wood and collect cans of cold drink and sell them. When I am without food then I go next door and if they don’t have then the children will have empty stomachs and I cry. Yesterday I left with my children fast asleep because they will ask me what we are going to eat. I am very thin because when I bought a bucket of mielie meal, I won’t eat at all if I am thinking of the children. They say, “Mum, you are going to die”.

Source: The People’s Voices, National Speak Out, Poverty Hearings, March-June 1998.

Economic transformation

As part of a larger strategy to reduce levels of poverty among previously disadvantaged South Africans, the government under President Mbeki introduced Black economic empowerment (BEE) policies. A central objective of these policies was the deracialisation of business ownership and control. This was to be achieved by increased access to capital for business development, while ensuring that no discrimination occurred in financial institutions. Emphasis was also placed on training, upgrading and real participation in ownership. A number of organisations have been formed to monitor and promote the process of Black economic empowerment.

The success of the Black economic empowerment and affirmative action policies in reducing inequality in South Africa is still hotly debated. While supporters of these policies proclaim that a great deal has been achieved, critics argue that the policies have only served to enrich a very small percentage of Africans and that there has been a negligible trickle-down effect to the poorest of the poor.

While a growing body of research, notably by Nattrass and Seekings (2001), contends that the racial composition of the middle class is rapidly diversifying, there has not been sufficient economic transformation. The 2002 report of the Commission on Employment Equity revealed that while Africans constitute 77% of all employees, they constitute only 25% of top management. According to Statistics SA, the average annual household income for African South Africans was R28 816, while the average income for White households was R134 489 22(Statistics SA, 2003: 9). Racial divisions aside, South Africa’s GINI coefficient, which is a measure of the degree of inequality in a nation, is one of the worst in the world, suggesting that while the rich may be becoming richer, the poor continue to barely subsist in ever-worsening poverty.

In addition to these government-led change initiatives, the economy has been restructured to reduce its dependency on the export of minerals, to develop an integrated and competitive manufacturing sector, to reduce unemployment, and to empower the historically marginalized. The changes in South Africa’s fiscal and economic policies have had the positive impact of reducing inflation, national debt and the budget deficit, while the country’s export performance has improved. South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has grown steadily since 1999. Overall it would appear that macro-economic stability has been attained. However, the targets set out in the GEAR strategy of growing the economy by 6% per year from 2001 and creating 400 000 jobs annually have not been met. Most analysts and economists appear to agree that unemployment has increased.

According to the government’s State of South Africa’s Population Report of 2000, the official unemployment rate increased from 16.9% in 1995 to 20.1% in 1996, and again to 22.9% in 1997. Between 1994 and 1997, the manufacturing industry lost 94 900 jobs. From 1997 to 1998, the textile industry alone lost an estimated 20 000 jobs. Census 2001 puts the unemployment rate for the age group 15-65 at 41.6%, with Africans accounting for 50.2% of this figure, compared to 6.3% for Whites.

fiscal- relating to government revenue, especially taxes
gross domestic product (GDP)- the total value of goods produced and services provided within a country during one year

What has to be done to complete the transition?

Socio-economic and political transformation

The freedom brought by the elections of 1994 has indeed impacted the daily lives of the majority of people. However, more still needs to be done. The conclusions of the Fourth Annual Economic and Social Rights Report, 2000-2002, are an important indicator of the social development challenges facing the nation as it heads into its second decade of democracy. (See box on this page for extracts from that report.)

In the political sphere, the country’s excellent legislative and institutional environment has not yet been fully translated into a culture of human rights, which requires the will and conviction of citizens. Without respect for the rule of law, confidence in the newly created institutions and a credible leadership, a viable human rights culture is unattainable.
An increase in crime and an upsurge in vigilante action serve as some indication that this translation may be happening at a slower pace than hoped for. In the last four years, the World Competitiveness Yearbook, published by the International Institute for Development Management (IMD), rated South Africa worst of 45 countries in terms of serious crime. It would seem that the substantial advances in developing a culture of respect for human rights within this exemplary institutional framework has been hampered by a lack of confidence, trust and support. Overcoming this general scepticism and apathy is a challenge South African citizens and their government must still face.

At the same time, South Africa is yet to triumph over lingering and subtle racism. This manifests itself in large sectors of South African society continuing to live in almost complete isolation, experiencing South African multicultural society from the vantage point of their racially homogeneous squatter camps, exclusive suburbs, rural villages, gated security complexes and commercial farms. While the poverty and crime of the townships more often than not enforce racial isolation on poorer Black urbanites, the majority of South Africans appear to isolate themselves voluntarily. A SA Reconciliation Barometer national survey revealed that 26% of South Africans claim that they never have contact with members of other races on an average day of the week, while 24% claim they do so only rarely 23(Lombard 2003: 62).

Extracts from the Fourth Annual Economics and Social Rights Report 2000-2002

Published by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).

  • Housing: “That the government has taken steps towards the progressive realisation of the right to have access to adequate housing is beyond dispute. However, it is regrettable to note that ”¦ millions of people are still living in peril and measures instituted cannot be considered to be comprehensive as they neglect significant members of society.”
  • Land: “The land reform process is still slow. Most land is still owned by white commercial farmers. The State and the previously disadvantaged groups, particularly Africans, share only 20% and between 13 million and 14 million rural inhabitants are affected by lack of access to land.”
  • Health care: “Policy and other measures introduced during the reporting period constitute a significant step taken towards the progressive realisation of the right to health care services. However, implementation difficulties in all the provinces remain a challenge, especially in providing access to poor rural communities. The goal of equity and implementation of quality and efficient service delivery in the public sector remains to be realised.”
  • Education: “The ”¦ legislative measures [taken during the reporting period] are indicative of the government’s sincere endeavour to fulfil its constitutional obligation to realise the right to education.”
  • Water: “While many of government’s most successful initiatives have heralded the water programmes since the post-apartheid government took over, there is concern about the methods that have been used, consultation processes, the use of privatisation schemes, and most importantly the sustainability of operation and maintenance of completed projects.”

Online 2003. Available url:

Challenges facing South Africa

The biggest challenges facing South Africa appear to lie in the realm of economics. The most pressing economic challenges lie in combating poverty and inequality, rapidly increasing foreign and domestic investment, growing the economy to the 6% per annum target set by the GEAR strategy, and reducing unemployment.

The task of overcoming poverty and inequality and of attaining sustainable development is encumbered by a number of challenges that have arisen to confront the nation. The rapid influx of masses of largely uneducated, unskilled and poor rural South Africans into the country’s sprawling informal settlements around the major cities not only places a heavier burden on the infrastructure, but also on employed community members. The sad reality is that few of those in search of a livelihood will find one.

Uneven access to quality education presents yet another challenge to realising the human capital needs of a labour market that has little room for the under-educated and under-skilled. At the same time, the consequences of the rapid rate at which the environment is being destroyed are not adequately understood and may prove to be phenomenal.

Among the most ominous of challenges facing the nation is the problem of HIV/AIDS. A recent Department of Health report estimates that the number of HIV-positive people in South Africa grew by 12% between 2001 and 2002, and scientists warn that a cure is probably more than ten years away. The spread of HIV/AIDS impacts negatively on the country in so many ways, ranging from increased pressure on government and individual family resources, to reduced work productivity, to potential prevention of investment and the threat of reversing the social advances made over the last decade.

On the eve of a decade of democracy, both state and private actors have embarked on far-reaching prevention campaigns and the government has agreed to make antiretrovirals available for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS. Despite these measures, the HIV/AIDS epidemic will still have dire consequences for generations to come.


The above are among the major challenges South Africa will have to confront in the second decade of its freedom. The country’s success in facing these challenges will depend on a number of variables - the availability of resources, policy choices, and constraints imposed on the country by global developments such as recession and war.

South Africa has made remarkable progress in the past decade, but efforts to improve the conditions for ordinary people have to continue.