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[Opinion] The new South Africa is 20 years old. The problems it faces are enormous, but there is still plenty to celebrate, writes Daniel Pelz

April 28, 2014

South Africa has indeed no shortage of problems. 20 years after the end of apartheid, the distribution of the nation’s wealth remains unjust – more unjust than almost anywhere else in the world. Almost half of the population – most of them black – lead poverty-stricken lives. The country is run by an overbearing elite, which conducts itself as if the state were its personal property. The press is muzzled by a draconian media law and the president’s private residence has been extravagantly refurbished at the expense of the taxpayer.
Apartheid has been abolished by law, but blacks and whites still live side by side rather than together in one community. There are still “white” and “black” residential areas, “white” and “black” churches, and “white” and “black” restaurants. When the international media write about South Africa, there is the almost inevitable reference to the “fading rainbow” and South Africa’s experiment in multi-ethnic democracy.

No rainbow nation overnight

Even though the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid is being celebrated, the party is over. Nelson Mandela, who could inspire people at home and abroad with his vision of hope, is no more. The early enthusiasm with which South Africans sought to turn a racist dictatorship into a country in which all could live in peace and prosperity overnight has evaporated.
And yet South Africa does have reasons to celebrate its rebirth. The country and its population of many different ethnic groups has accomplished much of which it can be justly proud. It is little short of miraculous that a country with such a volatile past – it stood on the brink of civil war after the end of apartheid – has not been consumed by violence. South Africa sets standards in the conduct of its domestic affairs, despite the failings of the political class.

The courage of civil society

South Africa has one of the most liberal constitutions in the world. Civil society is fighting hard to see that it is enacted in everyday life. Most media outlets keep a close watch on the ANC government and warn of the dangers of corruption and inefficiency. Even vigorous anti-apartheid campaigners like Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu have criticized the ANC government and President Zuma. And the Public Protector – South Africa’s top anti-corruption watchdog – has uncovered how Zuma used inappropriate sums of taxpayers’ money to upgrade his private residence.
South Africa has also avoided casting a cloak of silence over its past, unlike many other countries in the region. There were moving scenes at the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought to clear up politically motivated crimes committed under apartheid. Culprits confessed their guilt in front of weeping victims.

A country picks itself up

Over the last 20 years, a new generation has grown up determined to play their part in shaping South Africa’s future. For young South Africans, the barriers between blacks and whites, which dominated life in the country for 80 years, are disappearing. In Johannesburg or Cape Town, people of every skin color socialize with one another. Friendships between blacks and whites are nothing unusual, nor are marriages.

The tranquility with which South Africans reacted to the death of Nelson Mandela was also impressive. The majority of white South Africans did not lapse into hysteria, nor did they worry that the country would drift into civil war without Mandela’s powers of reconciliation, nor did they fear that South Africa would turn into another Zimbabwe. There was sufficient confidence in South Africa’s ability to sort out its many problems.

South Africa is neither an unparalleled success story, nor a state mired in crisis, it is a country that is picking itself up. It will take longer than 20 years to dismantle the legacy of decades of systematic, brutal racial discrimination. Yet in spite of all the difficulties, South Africa has the potential to surmount its problems. The elections in May will decide which course the country will take.

This past Sunday, though, the country could afford to celebrate the passing of twenty years free of apartheid.

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