30 years since Mandela was freed, where does South Africa stand?

February 11, 1990, was the day millions of black South Africans had been waiting decades for.

On that cloudless Sunday afternoon, Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison flanked by his wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his right hand raised and fist clenched. A sea of excited supporters held back by police had lined up, all trying to get a glimpse of their just-freed leader who had spent 27 years in prison for fighting against the country’s discriminatory apartheid system of racial segregation.

Tens of thousands more descended on the streets of Cape Town to be part of the historic day. Across the world, millions were glued to their television sets.

Mandela was finally a free man and, at that moment, South Africa changed forever.

Four years later, having guided the country through a dramatic transition that marked the end of apartheid, Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.

The inspirational and globally revered leader stepped down after serving one term as head of state and officially retired from public life in 2004. He died at the age of 95 on December 5, 2013.

Thirty years from the day Mandela was freed, where does South Africa stand?

Political freedoms
Since the end of white minority rule in 1994, South Africa has held six peaceful democratic elections – all free and fair and all won by Mandela’s party, the African National Congress (ANC).

“The political change the country has witnessed … is unprecedented. It cannot be underestimated,” Dale McKinley, a political analyst, told Al Jazeera.

“Political space has opened up and gone are the days where people were arrested for expressing their political views.”

The country also has one of the most vibrant media landscapes on the continent, with media watchdog Reporters without Borders ranking South Africa 31st out of 180 countries in its 2019 global press freedom index.

Economic boom, poverty gap
South Africa is the continent’s most industrialised country, with its gross domestic product (GDP) rising from $139.8bn in 1994 to $368.9bn in 2018, according to the World Bank.

“The record growth the country witnessed after apartheid was partly due to the boom in global commodity prices. On average, the economy grew about 3 percent every year,” economist Azar Jamine told Al Jazeera.

The transition to democracy also enabled South Africa to begin borrowing funds for infrastructure projects from international financial institutions – which had refused to do business with the country in the final years of apartheid.

But, in recent years, the economy has been hit by a slump amid high unemployment and dips in key sectors.

In January, the International Monetary Fund said it expected Africa’s second-biggest economy to grow at 0.8 percent this year, down from a previous forecast of 1.1 percent growth. For 2021, it forecast growth of 1.0 percent, down from an earlier prediction for 1.4 percent growth.

At the same time, the country has remained mired in profound inequality, seen by many as one of the legacies of apartheid.

“Inequality is high, persistent, and has increased since 1994,” the World Bank said in a 2018 report. The top 1 percent of South Africans own 70.9 percent of the country’s wealth, it added, while the bottom 60 percent hold just 7 percent.

The body also said South Africa has the highest Gini index in the world: 63 percent. The index measures a country’s wealth distribution – the closer a value is to zero the more equal the residents of that country are.

South Africa has made progress in reducing poverty since its transition to democracy – 18.8 percent of South Africans were poor in 2015, a drop from 33.8 percent in 1996, according to the World Bank. Yet progress is slowing in recent years, with the poverty rate of people living on less than $1.90 a day increasing from 16.8 percent to 18.8 percent between 2011 and 2015.

“On the socioeconomic front, little has changed. In fact, things have gotten worse when it comes to basic services like healthcare, housing and education,” McKinley said.

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