The election 25 years ago of South Africa’s first black president, the late Nelson Mandela, who inspired the struggle against apartheid, was a time of soaring hope that the bruised country would reconcile after decades of discrimination and inequality.
“You have mandated us to change South Africa from a country in which the majority lived with little hope to one in which they can live and work with dignity, with a sense of self-esteem and confidence in the future,” Mandela said at his inauguration.
For many, it has not quite turned out like that.
Instead, the euphoria of a fresh start and a better life has faded, turning to disillusionment and anger as the country prepares for a general election on May 8.
The polls will be a severe test for the African National Congress which has held power virtually unchallenged in post-apartheid South Africa.
Since 1994, far from narrowing differences, successive ANC governments have presided over an ever widening wealth gap to the point where South Africa is now judged to be one of the most unequal societies of all, according to World Bank research last year.
Between 2011 and 2015, some three million South Africans fell below the poverty line, it said.
While the headline stories fete the success of an emerging middle class, some 20 percent of black households are classed as living in extreme poverty, the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) says.
In contrast, only 2.9 percent of white households come in this category.
The economy was also expected to get a real boost as apartheid-era sanctions were lifted and South Africa joined a fast globalising world.
Instead, after initial sharp gains in the period 1994 to 2006 — when annual growth hit rates above 5.0 percent — the economy crashed in 2008 as the global financial crisis undermined investment and foreign demand.
It has struggled to get back on track ever since and last year growth was an anaemic 0.8 percent, down from 1.3 percent in 2017 and way below the rate needed to provide jobs for a fast growing population.
South Africa’s economy is now the second-ranked in Africa, trailing Nigeria, according to the latest World Bank data.
The unemployment figures are telling. The jobless rate currently runs at 27 percent, compared with 20 percent in 1994, showing how the country is running at a standstill, if not going backwards.
Beyond the figures, corruption has become endemic, badly tainting the government apparatus and public companies, especially in the 2009-2018 term of president Jacob Zuma who was eventually forced from office.
Against a backdrop of growing social and economic divisions, racial tensions are again rising to the surface in the “Rainbow Nation” of many races dreamed of by Mandela.
A key issue is white land ownership, a constant complaint for the majority black population who feel they have been cheated out of what should rightfully be theirs.
In the black townships, where many live without electricity, running water or decent housing, there is growing resentment that their needs are not being met.
Some even appear to regret the passing of apartheid.
“Life was better before, because white people were taking care of us,” said Bella Lemotlo, a church pastor in a shanty outside Coligny in the north of the country.
“Since we black people are in the front, we cry. We lie to us, when we say we live in freedom, this is not freedom,” Lemotlo told AFP.
Cyril Ramaphosa, who took over from Zuma in early 2018, knows the problems.
“Our democracy has blossomed and flourished… but the road towards true freedom is a long one and we have seen divisions in our society grow,” Ramaphosa said in his state of the nation address in February.
The answer he said was not “pessimism and defeatism,” but standing together to build a non-racial South Africa.