Twenty Years of Democracy in South Africa: Should We Celebrate?

by Mpoletsang Raymond Montshosi

Twenty years of nominal Black rule has failed to change relationships of wealth and economic power in South Africa – the world’s most unequal country. “An average African man earns in the region of R2,400 per month, whilst an average white man earns around R19,000 per month.”


Twenty Years of Democracy in South Africa: Should We Celebrate?

by Mpoletsang Raymond Montshosi

This article previously appeared in Pambazuka News.

Disparities in the conditions of living are a direct consequence of the legacy of apartheid.”

The ANC has been in power for twenty years. Whilst there have been some achievements, high unemployment, income inequalities, service delivery protests demonstrate that the promissory note of better life for the working class has been bypassed. A neoliberal democracy has benefitted a black elite and its white minority counterpart.

It was on the 27th of April 1994, 20 years ago when South Africa held its first democratic elections which resulted in the African National Congress (ANC) becoming the ruling party with the first black President of South Africa being Nelson Mandela. The latter marked a historic epoch in the politics of South Africa and the world at large as these elections brought apartheid to its knees and those excluded from were now participating in the democratic processes of the government.
The body politic of South Africa has been dominated by the ANC government since it won the first elections in 1994. In 2009 the fourth general and provincial elections were held in South Africa. In all four elections the ANC won with an excess of 60 per cent of the popular majority of the vote for the national assembly. In 2009 elections it captured political power in all but one of the nine provinces.(1)

In 2014 South Africa held its fifth democratic elections and the status quo remains the same; the ANC remains the ruling party. It is vital that we reflect on the 20 years of freedom under the ANC led government, and ponder on the conditions of South Africans in these 20 years. In particular, we must look at the conditions of those who were previously excluded by the segregationist and later apartheid government.

Twenty years after the collapse of apartheid “there have been many changes, but little change in South Africa. Poverty and inequality seem to be increasing rather than decreasing. How were the dreams of freedom and social and economic equality so quickly dashed?” (2) This article will reflect on the 20 years of democracy and answer the question as to whether should it be celebrated.

South Africa’s 20 Years of Democracy

There is no doubt that the ANC led government has made some strides which must be celebrated. The democratic government managed to transform the apartheid government system. South Africa has one of the most democratic constitutions, a bill of rights, constitutional courts which carry out checks and balances on whether the government is in compliance with the constitution of the country. It is therefore imperative that the ANC led government receives credit for such transformation.

The legacy of apartheid has shifted but it has not been fundamentally challenged in twenty years of democracy. There have been improvements in housing since the African National Congress (ANC) became the government in 1994, but the legacy of apartheid is palpable. The crude racial laws of apartheid have been abolished. Grand and petty apartheid that determined where people lived, where they worked, and how they were represented has been abolished. (3) In twenty years of democracy “there is universal suffrage, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and freedom of sexual orientation.” (4)

In the process of transforming and in its “striving to empower its largely black support base, the ANC had to draw on a limited supply of talented black public servants. Inevitably, nepotism, careerism and corruption reared their heads in this process. Party loyalty was rewarded instead of competence; technical expertise was traded for black representivity; ideological ideals were put before pragmatic necessity. Thus there are at present crises of proper service delivery in almost all spheres of governmental and parastatal bodies. The ANC is acutely aware of these shortcomings in its public utterances, but quite often its deeds and public commitments do not, or seemingly do not, match.” (5)

Grand and petty apartheid that determined where people lived, where they worked, and how they were represented has been abolished.”

Because of careerism and lack of capacity South Africa experiences breakdown in services and “local revolts against weak and ineffective service delivery. In social transformation the education policy of the ANC has not been successful in delivering an education system that serves the mass of the South Africans well. At primary and secondary school level there is a serious lack of capacity and dedication by the school teachers’ corps, which leads to weak examination results and pitiable education of the impoverished masses.” (6)

In twenty years of democracy what we have seen or what has changed “is the expansion of a Black middle class. Though many middle class Blacks have moved out of the townships, the inequality in township housing is one indication of the enrichment of this small class.”(7) Despite the growth of this small class, the Gini coefficient have not changed with the collapse of the apartheid, “in 1995, the Gini coefficient stood at 0.64 but it increased to 0.68 in 2008.”(8)
The democracy which we must celebrate is nothing but a neo-liberal democracy because “political democracy has been deepened in many respects, it is in the field of the economy and ideology that it has failed to take root. In class terms, democracy benefitted those who own economic resources more than the working class and the poor. Decisions about the nature and pattern of capital accumulation, social and economic policy, legal institutions and cultural expressions, political practice and the administration of the state, are still biased towards capitalist class interests. To a large extent, the state remains insensitive to the plight of the working class majority.”(9)

Unemployment remains persistent; unemployment among Africans was estimated to be 38% in 1995 and it stood at 45 percent in 2005. Overall, the unemployment rate in the South African economy was 31 percent in 1995 and increased to 39 percent in 2005 (10). This human capital could be used for the development of the country, but rather is just the waste of human capital. The structure of unemployment reflects racial imbalances because “as of 2009, the rate of participation of Africans in the labor force was 52 percent and for whites it was 68 percent. Because of the continued structures of domination and exclusion, it will not be wrong to conclude that most Africans do not participate in the labor force because they are the least absorbed in employment.”(11) According to Labor Force Survey, October 2013, in Quarter 1: 2008, 4.2 million people were actively looking for employment and were available to work; in a period of close to six years the number grew by 389 000 to 4.6 million in Quarter 3: 2013. (12) The highest level of unemployment was observed in Quarter 2: 2013 at 4.7 million. In Quarter 3: 2013, there was, however, a decrease in the number of unemployed persons to 4,6 million (down by 114,000) compared to Quarter 2: 2013.

There is challenge of education and those at the receiving end are the children of the working class and the poor. This is still racialized and the quality is declining, because “70% of (matriculation) exam passes are accounted for by just 11 percent of schools, the former white, colored, and Asian schools” (13). What is of major concern is that 12-year olds in South Africa perform three times less than 11-year olds in Russia when it comes to reading and 16-year olds in South Africa perform three times less than 14-year olds in Cyprus when it comes to mathematics. Nevertheless, white learners perform in line with the international average in both science and mathematics, which is twice the score of African learners. (14)

The ANC led government made strides with regard to provision of housing since 1994. However, despite these achievements, housing remains a challenge. In twenty years of democracy 46 percent of South African households live in dwellings with no more than 3 rooms, and 17 percent of households live in 1-room dwellings. Among Africans 55 percent live in dwellings with less than 3 rooms and 21 percent live in 1-room dwellings, whereas at least 50 percent of White households lives in dwellings with no less than 4 rooms. These disparities in the conditions of living are a direct consequence of the legacy of apartheid, and the accumulation path that underpins it. (15)

To a large extent, the state remains insensitive to the plight of the working class majority.”

Income inequality is still racialised, and has deepened within racial groups. An average African man earns in the region of R2,400 per month, whilst an average white man earns around R19,000 per month. The racial income gap is therefore roughly R16,800 among males. Black women are yet to be liberated from the triple oppression. Most white women earn in the region of R9,600 per month, whereas most African women earn R1,200 per month. The racial income gap in monthly incomes among women is therefore R8,400. The race gap is therefore overwhelmingly severe among males. The gap in monthly income between African men and White women is R7 200. In addition, 56 percent of Whites earn no less than R6,000 per month whereas 81 percent of Africans earn no more than R6 000 per month. (16)

In light of the issues raised, high unemployment, low paying and uncertainty with regard to jobs has led some communities to engage in a violent service delivery protests. These protests are informed by low quality services or lack of services in some instances and sometimes by government neglecting its responsibilities, despite the fact that the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa clearly set out service delivery obligations in Sections 152 and 153. The assertion by Kunene and Maseng (17) is correct that “the Constitution of South Africa as the supreme law of the country recognizes the importance of healing inequalities created during the apartheid era through establishing a society based on democratic values, social justice and respect for fundamental human rights. Further, the Constitution lays the foundation of a democratic and open society in which every citizen is equal and protected by the law and, most substantively, the Constitution recognizes the importance of human dignity realizable through improvements in the quality of life of all citizens, thus healing the divisions created by colonialism and apartheid.” Further “the violent nature of community protest reflects the inequalities, anger and other grievances that prevail in many previously neglected communities, where the harsh conditions of life related to squalor, poverty, disease and alienation are acutely experienced the most.”(18) The service delivery protests reflect the class imbalances and inequalities of South African society in the democratic era which remain unchanged as inherited from the apartheid era, democracy which is said we must celebrate has benefited the small class of black middle class and the white elites, one can reach a conclusion that democracy has bypassed the poor and the working class.

What Went Wrong?

What went wrong with 20 years of democracy is that we had a government with “absence of ideology which means absence of social vision, or liberatory ideology. Ideology is important in determining the direction of the revolution.” (19) The ruling party seems to have abandoned their guiding document which was to determine the direction of the South African revolution or liberation which is the National Democratic Revolution. The ANC led government has “failed in its attempt to alleviate poverty, not simply due to a lack of resources but also because of specific policy choices.”(20)

The 20 years we have experienced is 20 years of neo-liberal democracy. During these 20 years political democracy was deepened in many ways, but failed to take root in the field of economy and ideology.

COSATU “(21) is correct in its assertions to say the policies of the past 20 years have failed to deliver tangible progress for the working class. The working class has been severely marginalized from effectively participating and staking its claim in the economy in a number of ways: through the scourge of unemployment, an extremely flexible labor market in the form of casualization, outsourcing and the use of labor brokers, the commodification of basic needs and the suppression of workers’ wages below productivity gains. This suppression of workers’ wages below productivity gains has seen the unfortunate and avoidable massacre of workers in Lonmin Platinum Mine in Marikana and the longest workers strike in the history of South Africa. The current economic policy reproduces inequality, unemployment, poverty and deepens class antagonism created by the apartheid government.


Twenty years of democracy is not to be celebrated by the working class and the poor of South Africa. Rather what is being applauded is a neoliberal democracy which is only celebrated by the whites who still have power over the economy of the country and the black elites or middle class which emerged post 1994. The democratic government decisions about capital accumulation, social and economic policies and administration of the state are still biased to the capitalist class. The promissory note of better life to poor and the working class has been bypassed; democracy bypassed the poor and the working class of South Africa. Therefore they have nothing to celebrate but must continue to fight to be completely liberated, politically and economically.

Mpoletsang Raymond Montshosi is a third year student at North West University Mafikeng Campus in the Faculty of Human and Social Science, studying Politics and International Relations, majoring in International Relations.


1. Venter, A. 2011 ‘The Context of South African Government and Politics’ in A. Venter & C. Landsberg, eds. ‘Government and Politics in South Africa’ 4th Edition. Pretoria: Van Schaik, pp. 3-19.
2. Gibson, N. 2001. ‘The Pitfalls of South Africa’s “Liberation” in ‘New Political Science, 23 (3), pp. 371-387.
3. Ibid, Gibson, 2001.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid, Venter, 2011.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid, Gibson, 2001.
8. Presidency, T. 2009 ‘Development Indicators’, Pretoria: Department of communication, information systems.
9. COSATU, 2010. ‘A Growth Path Towards Full Employment: Policy Perspectives of the Congress of South African Trade Unions’. Johannesburg: COSATU.
10. ANC, 2007. ‘The Role of the Working Class and Organised Labour in Advancing National Democratic Revolution.’ Online. Available at: Accessed 30 April 2014
11. Ibid, COSATU, 2010.
12. Barnard, G. 2009’ Realising South Africa’s Employment Potential’. OECD Working Paper, Issue 662.
13. Ibid, COSATU.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
17. Kunene, M. L. & Maseng, O.J. 2011 ‘Violent Service Delivery Protests in Global Perspective: Issues of Governance’ in ‘Post-apartheid South Africa’ in L. Boulle, ed. ‘Globalisation and Governance’ Cape Town. Siber Ink, pp. 252-266.
18. Ibid.
19. Ibid, Gibson.
20. Ibid.
21. Ibid, COSATU.