South Africa Revisiting the twenty years of democracy

On April 27 1994, South Africa embarked on a journey that would pave a new path and cast aside centuries of discrimination and oppression. It was on this day the apartheid rule came to an end and a new constitutional order was introduced; wherein all work was directed towards a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous society. On May 7 2014, South Africans will make their way to voting stations to cast their votes which will determine who will be the next president of the Republic Of South Africa.

With all the political freedoms I may now be able to celebrate, a number of my fellow South Africans have expressed their disappointment towards the government and its leaders. While most South Africans still retain their faith in the democratic system, there have been some who have condemned the current government for its failure to drive a deeper transformation process. At the same time many others view the government as a “caring parent” that still preserves compassionate status for its people.

As we raise questions about whether government really cares for the needs of its people, the views of many South Africans is that political leaders as individuals seem to care more for their pockets and their associates. This gets to the heart of the very nature of what government is supposed to be. The gap between political leaders and people living in communities and the very real feeling that people are not being adequately represented exacerbates the belief that politicians care more for themselves than the people. As these leaders tend to become detached from what is happening at a grassroots level negative perceptions of government escalate1.

The high levels of unemployment also remain a critical problem within society, and we have witnessed the social effect of this on people. Amidst all grievances expressed regarding unemployment there is also a growing perception that jobs are more easily given to those with political connections.  Despite the rising Gross Domestic Product (GDP), issues of corruption, poverty, income inequality, land ownership and the quality of education and health within South African remain serious issues of concern.  Since 1994 government policies have sought to correct the imbalances through state intervention and various policy approaches. However the successes vary within each area of priority and the relative success in each area is hotly debated.Although we can easily identify the shortcomings of the government, it is crucial that we respond by offering alternative approaches to addressing these challenges. Adopting a transformative perspective allows us to view these impediments as an opportunity to explore alternatives, in an effort to produce constructive change or growth.

In identifying the flaws that exist within the government, citizens can engage themselves to rather generate creative platforms that can simultaneously address surface issues and change underlying social structures. Public participation in governance is crucial as it provides democratic legitimacy to policy decisions and the possibility of more locally appropriate policy implementation. It is important we note that it is not only the existence of public participation in governance that is important, but also the extent and meaningfulness of this participation2.

Moving forward, the government should ensure strong participatory governance systems that complement a representative democracy and ensure the ongoing participation of people in decision-making processes and the implementation of these decisions. In practice, what this means is creating a public space, accessible governance mechanisms and proactive processes that improve the roles played by members of the public and civil society groups in contributing to government policies.

South Africa is one of the few African states with a representative government that recognizes and promotes public participation. The government structures, civil society organisations and political parties within South Africa have conferred citizens the right to organise and mobilise their constituencies as well as have a voice on matters that affect them and their communities. This is an important step in the right direction.

The apartheid state was an instrument of coercion that used brute force and violence to solicit compliance from its subjects. By way of contrast, the democratic state seeks to use human and legitimate approaches to enforce compliance with laws. More recently, however, police brutality has become an ongoing issue of concern. Nevertheless today every South African citizen has the power to transform their society by electing the political party that best represents their needs and that they believe will actually deliver on their efforts to meet these needs.

The post-apartheid state inherited a deeply divided society in terms of class, race, gender and other divides. Under apartheid the allocation of opportunity, services and resources to the population was based on these socially engineered categories of social relations. The dawn of democracy held much promise particularly because of the inclusion of socio-economic rights within the much-heralded South African Constitution. From the onset, the democratic state was faced with the twin strategic tasks of simultaneously transforming both the state and society. Social transformation is the primary focal point of the state as it is an institution that has the capacity and obligation to change lives.

The position and involvement of women in these social transformation processes has also changed significantly. Fast tracking to twenty years later since the birth of democracy, the state has been shaped by women to reflect gender struggles and outcomes that may deliver a non-sexist society3. Today South Africa is ranked 17th across key gender economic indicators according to the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report as well as eighth on women political empowerment4. This serves as one of the greatest achievements given the short period of time and the inherited legacies of apartheid and colonialism.

South Africa has made progress in providing social services such as health care, education and housing. According to the 20 Year Review of South Africa, over eight million school children are now beneficiaries of no-fee schools, while nine-million are being fed through the schools feeding scheme5. In addition, over 1500 healthcare facilities have been built with existing ones being refurbished in the past twenty years. Over the past two decades 2.8-million government-subsidised houses have been distributed and over 875 000 serviced sites being delivered, with 56% of housing subsidies being allocated to woman-headed households. This has provided more than 12-million South Africans access to accommodation, and increased the proportion of people living in formal housing from 64% in 1996 to 77% in 2011.

There are still a number of structural and systemic underlying components to the conflict system affecting South Africa. These include the high unemployment rate especially amongst the youth; the inequality gap between the rich and the poor; poor service delivery; the brutal and unprofessional approach by the police, and the issue of land redistribution.

Our country has made significant strides over the years and while it’s still a massively uphill struggle the possibility of us moving forward in building a united, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous South Africa for the future generation is still very much alive!

Article by Lerato Mohlamenyane


1 Booysen, S. “Twenty Years of South African Democracy: Citizens views of human rights, governance and the political system” retrieved 13 March 2014, 
2 Tadesse, E., Ameck, G., Christensen, P., Masiko, P., Matlhakola, M., Shilaho .,W & Smith. R., The People Shall Govern: A research report on public participation in policy process, p. 7
3 Maimela, D. “What is the end of State?” retrieved 17 March 2014,
4 Global Gender Report 2013, p.229
5 20 Year Review: South Africa’s success story,

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