More than two decades after Nelson Mandela came to power, life in South Africa remains dominated by social inequality. Central Cape Town’s mountain and beach communities contrast with the townships sprawling across the Cape Flats, lining the N2 with shacks and Portaloos. Seeing First World wealth alongside African poverty is confronting for first-time visitors. Yet every day, millions of South Africans embrace progress by trying to understand and respect the vastly different outlooks of people from other economic and racial groups.

Race Relations

What makes South Africa an uplifting place to visit is witnessing the dissolution of racial divisions. Projects here aim to empower inhabitants of the townships and former homelands, and to provide work in a country with over 25% unemployment. Finding common ground can be challenging in this cultural melting pot with 11 official languages, but race relations are informed by the miracle that Mandela et al performed.

However, given the decades of segregation under apartheid, South African society lacks the cohesion enjoyed by many Western countries. Different racial groups work together, but infrequently socialise or intermarry, and there are periodic black-white flare-ups in the media, politics and academia. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) party often links current woes to apartheid, perhaps seeking to lessen its own culpability and reinforce its image as South Africa's great liberator. More extreme still are utterances by Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), known for its Zimbabwe-style policies of land reform and nationalisation, and protesting students who accuse universities of being bastions of colonialism.

Despite the courts cracking down on racist behaviour, high-profile cases still make headlines. Sadly, polarisation is becoming at least as evident as the multiracial ubuntu (goodwill) that prevailed in previous decades, although many locals still cherish the ideal of the rainbow nation.


Relations between black ethnic groups are equally as sensitive as those between different racial groups – from the Xhosa and Zulus to foreign immigrants. Economic refugees flock to the townships from neighbouring countries, intensifying pressure on infrastructure and competition for jobs. Xenophobic violence swept the country in 2008, and periodic attacks on immigrants and looting of foreign-owned shops continue to be features of township life.

AIDS & Gender Issues

With the world’s largest HIV-positive population (more than seven million people), South Africa saw 270,000 new infections and 110,000 deaths from AIDS-related illnesses in 2016. Educational efforts face numerous taboos, and sangomas (traditional healers) preach superstitious lore.

South Africa’s record on gender issues exemplifies the country’s contradictions. Its constitution, adopted in 1996, is the world’s most progressive, promoting the rights of women and LGBT people (same-sex marriage is legal). Yet the street-level reality is far harsher, with one of the world’s highest rape rates, including ‘corrective’ rape of lesbians.

Politics: ANC

When Mandela died in 2013, South Africa came together in a way not seen since the 2010 World Cup. Madiba's death was, though, a reminder that the ANC is losing its apartheid-busting glow, as it presides over a country where crime, corruption and institutional incompetence are rife. As the hope surrounding 1994's election recedes, millions of South Africans still live in shacks and struggle to find work. Then President Jacob Zuma made the populist move of scratching and freezing university fees, criticised as a barrier to social upliftment, for poor and working-class students.

Zuma, who began his final presidential term in 2014, will be remembered for the Marikana massacre, in which police killed 34 people after opening fire on striking miners; Nkandlagate, in which he was accused of spending R246 million (US$24.6 million) of public funds to upgrade Nkandla, his homestead in Zululand; and Guptagate, in which a wealthy Indian family amassed a large amount of influence in government through Zuma and his family members, who were given directorships at Gupta-run companies.

Politics: DA

In the 2016 municipal elections, the Democratic Alliance (DA), which has governed the Western Cape for a decade, made major gains in ANC strongholds, notably Tshwane (Pretoria), Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth). The DA and its coalition partners cut lavish spending for city officials, reassigning luxury cars meant for government officials to police officers in the anti-hijacking unit, and laid corruption charges against Pretoria's previous administration. Subsequently, the DA's appeal was dampened by accusations that its mismanagement contributed to Cape Town's water crisis, which necessitated harsh water restrictions in 2018.

Politics: Elections

Cyril Ramaphosa became leader of the ANC in late 2017, but Zuma was still set to remain as president until the 2019 general elections. That was until growing controversy and pressure from within his own party came to a head in February 2018 and forced Zuma to resign. Given the gains made by the DA and their coalitions, the ANC will have to work hard to avoid a repeat of the 2014 elections, when its majority in the National Assembly dropped to 62% from previous highs of 66% in 2009 and 70% in 2004.