After 20 years of democracy, the country looks to the future

In April 2014 South Africans celebrated the 20th anniversary of both the end of apartheid and the creation of the modern Republic of South Africa. These two events highlight just how far South Africa has come in the past two decades, during which the nation’s numerous assets – including a liberalised and internationally competitive economy; a strong and active civil society; a free and diverse media; and a highly functional and democratic government – have contributed to its rise as one of Africa’s leading economic and diplomatic players. While South Africa has its fair share of challenges, including high levels of unemployment and inequality, the continent’s second-largest economy has made significant gains since 1994.

Geography & Climate

South Africa covers 1.22m sq km of land on the southern tip of the African continent, making it the world’s 25th-largest country. With more than 2500 km of coastline, South Africa is connected to the South Atlantic Ocean to the south and south-west, and the Indian Ocean to the east and south-east. The country’s northern border abuts Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland, from west to east. Additionally, the country completely surrounds the independent enclave of Lesotho. The country’s interior is dominated by a high, largely flat plateau, which is around 2100 metres in altitude in the east and slowly slopes downward to around 1000 metres above sea level in the west. The plateau is ringed by the Great Escarpment, which in the east is known as the Drakensberg. As a whole, the climate is generally temperate, though as a result of the varied topography and long coastline, the country is home to a wide variety of microclimates.


As of mid-2014, the population stood at an estimated 54m, according to data from Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), which makes it the 25thmost-populous country in the world and the fifth largest in Africa. According to UN forecasts, the population is expected to grow to 55.13m by 2020, which represents average annual growth of less than 1%. Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, was home to 12.91m people – or 23.9% of the population – at the end of July 2014, according to Stats SA data, followed by KwaZulu-Natal, with 10.69m people (19.8% of the population); Eastern Cape, with 6.79m (12.6%); and Western Cape, with 6.12m (11.3%). The smallest province, meanwhile, was Northern Cape, with a population of 1.17m (2.2% of the population), despite being the largest province by land area. Johannesburg is South Africa’s largest city, followed by Cape Town and Durban, respectively.

Around 30% of the country’s population was 15 years old or younger as of mid-2014, and more than 41% of this youth population lived in Gauteng or KwaZulu-Natal. At the same time, around 80% of the populace identified as Black African, 8.8% as coloured (which describes individuals of mixed ethnic origin), 8.4% identified as white and 2.5% identified as Indian or Asian, according to Stats SA.


Humans and our ancestors have inhabited the land that now includes South Africa for millennia. Over the course of the past century, a number of major archaeological discoveries have been made in a fossil-rich network of limestone caves located 45-km north of Johannesburg. Some of these fossils – including the 2.5m-year-old “Taung child” skull and the 2.2m-3.3m-year-old “little foot” bones – are among the oldest human and pre-human remains ever discovered anywhere on earth. In 2000 UNESCO awarded World Heritage Site status to this area, which is now known as the Cradle of Humankind. Additionally, based on archaeological discoveries made at a series of caves near Mossel Bay, on South Africa’s southern coast, homo sapiens (humans) have occupied this part of the world for at least 170,000 years.

From 1000 BC onwards a series of indigenous African populations moved into the region and came to dominate large swathes of the area that would eventually become South Africa. Major groups include the Khoisan and the Bantu people, who are considered to be the ancestors of a large percentage of black South Africans. In 1652 representatives of the Dutch East India Company established a station at the Cape of Good Hope. This outpost, which would eventually become Cape Town, is regarded as the first permanent European settlement in South Africa.

Over the following two and a half centuries the colonial Dutch and British governments fought a series of wars with each other and with various indigenous groups, including the Xhosa and Zulu peoples, with the dual goals of controlling the lucrative southern sea route between Europe and the Far East and occupying Southern Africa.

As a result of a decline in Dutch influence on the Western Cape during this period, a substantial number of the descendants of the original Dutch settlers – collectively known as Boers, or “farmers” – moved east, settling in areas what would eventually become Natal, Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The discovery of diamonds and gold in the interior – near modern-day Johannesburg – in the late-19th century contributed to an uptick in conflict in the region.

This and other competing interests led to the AngloBoer Wars between the Dutch and the British, which were eventually won by the latter in 1902. When the conflict ended, the victors set out to consolidate their control over Southern Africa, which resulted in the establishment of the Union of South Africa, a dominion of the British Empire, in 1910.

The Apartheid Era

From the 1600s through the 1900s, European colonialists treated South Africa’s various indigenous groups as second-class citizens at best and slave labour at worst. This arrangement continued largely unabated in the new Union of South Africa. From 1910 onwards Black South Africans were routinely and repeatedly denied a role in the political and economic life of the country.

This racist system was formalised in 1948, when the National Party (NP) took power on a platform of state-sponsored segregation and discrimination. Under the apartheid government the country’s large black population was denied the right to free movement, free association, high-quality education, work and various other basic social and civil rights.

The formal opposition to white minority rule took shape in 1912, when the South African Native National Congress – which would eventually become the African National Congress (ANC) – was founded in a church in Bloemfontein. Under the apartheid regime opposition to the NP’s policies grew rapidly, both among the local black and coloured majority population and, by the 1980s, among a wide coalition of international observers, including the UN and various foreign governments. During this period the international community successfully instituted boycotts of South African products and sanctions on business dealings with the apartheid government, which took a serious economic toll on the country.

As a result of international and domestic pressure alike, in the late 1980s and early 1990s the NP set out to dismantle the apartheid system. In 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from 30 years of imprisonment on Robben Island, off Cape Town. For the next four years Mandela worked with Frederik Willem de Klerk, the leader of the NP and South Africa’s president from 1989 through 1994, to write a new constitution and bring about a peaceful transition to representative democracy. This effort culminated in South Africa’s first multi-racial elections in 1994, as a result of which the ANC, with Mandela as president, took charge of the new Republic of South Africa. Since then South Africa has regularly occupied the top spot in Africa on many development and economic indices. The ANC, which scored its fifth consecutive electoral victory in May 2014, plays a major role in regional and global political and economic affairs.


South Africa has the second-largest economy in Africa after Nigeria and, according to data from the IMF, the 33rd largest economy in the world (see Economy chapter). The nation’s nominal GDP was approximately R3.5trn ($331.45bn) for the fiscal year ending March 2014, according to data from the National Treasury, and, despite being overtaken by Nigeria as the largest economy on the continent, South Africa is still number one in terms of income, with a GDP per capita of $6618 in 2013.

While the mining and quarrying sector’s contribution to South Africa’s economy has dropped from around 15% in the 1980s to 4.9% in 2013, according to Stats SA data, as of early 2014 minerals accounted for around two-thirds of the nation’s total exports. The country is the world’s single largest producer of platinum, in addition to being a major producer of gold, coal, diamonds, manganese and a variety of other minerals (see Mining chapter). Manufacturing accounted for more than 15% of South Africa’s GDP in 2013, according to data from Stats SA, though this proportion has been dropping over time.

Despite the size of South Africa’s economy, the country currently faces a number of major economic challenges. As of the end of July 2014 the unemployment rate was at 25.5%, according to Stats SA data, which was among the highest in the world. According to the World Economic Forum’s “Global Risk 2014” report, more than 50% of South Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 were unemployed as of the end of 2013, which was the third-highest youth unemployment rate in the world.

Similarly, according to a September 2013 study released by researchers at King’s College London, South Africa was one of the five least-equal countries in the world in terms of income based on Palma ratio and Gini coefficient calculations, both of which are common ways of gauging income inequality.


South Africa is a constitutional democracy. At the federal level the government comprises a total of three branches, namely the executive authority, which includes the president and his cabinet of ministers; the legislative authority, which is the national representative and law-making body; and the judicial authority, which is composed of the nation’s independent courts system. In addition to the federal government, each of the country’s nine provinces – namely Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Northern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West – is governed by a provincial executive and legislative authority. Power is further decentralised in local authorities across South Africa’s 278 municipalities.

South Africa’s federal legislative authority comprises two houses. The lower house, the National Assembly, includes 350-400 members elected to five-year terms. The upper house, or the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), is made up 10 representatives from each province, 60% of whom are permanent members, while the remaining 40% are specially appointed delegates. The National Assembly has a mandate to pass legislation, represent public interests, act as a check on executive power and elect the president. The NCOP, meanwhile, represents provincial concerns.

Like members of the National Assembly, the president of the republic stands a five-year term, and is allowed to serve no more than two terms consecutively. The president is responsible for appointing and dismissing a deputy president, ministers and deputy ministers. Ministers are selected primarily from members of the National Assembly, though the president is allowed to appoint a maximum of two non-member ministers. South Africa’s independent judicial system is made up of constitutional, appeals, high and magistrates’ courts, in addition to a variety of local-level judiciaries, including small claims, traditional and community courts, among others. The three branches of South Africa’s government are spread around the country. The executive authority and federal administration is headquartered in Pretoria, the National Assembly sits in Cape Town and the Constitutional Court is located in Bloemfontein.


Since 1994 there have been five general elections in South Africa, all of which have been won by the ANC. In the most recent election, which took place in May 2014, the ANC won more than 62% of the vote, and Jacob Zuma, the party’s leader and the incumbent president, was re-elected. This most recent election was the first since Mandela’s death in December 2013, and was also the first in which the country’s born-free generation – that is, those citizens born after 1994 – were eligible to vote.

Since winning some 63% of the seats in the newly formed National Assembly in 1994, the ANC has dominated politics in South Africa. In 2004 it won almost 70% of the vote. Since then support for the ANC has tailed off somewhat – in 2009 it won 66% of the vote, for example, and in 2014 this number dropped further – though it has clearly retained broad support among the general population.

During the apartheid era the ANC was considered to be a terrorist organisation by the government, and many of its leaders served time in prison. Since 1994 the party has benefitted from the strong labour backing of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), both of which put forward candidates through the ANC. Together the ANC, the SACP and COSATU are known as the Tripartite Alliance.

While the ANC won the 2014 elections handily, a number of other political parties have gained ground in the country over the past decade. The Democratic Alliance (DA), which traces its history back to the anti-apartheid Progressive Party in the 1960s, won more than 22% of the vote in 2014, up from 16.6% in 2009 and 1.7% in 1994. The DA is led by Helen Zille, a former mayor of Cape Town and the current Premier of the Western Cape, which, not coincidentally, was the sole province not won by the ANC in the 2014 election. The DA has put forward largely centrist policies, with a focus on improving economic opportunity, clamping down on corruption and investing in social services, such as education and health care.

A newer player in South African politics is the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, which was established in 2013 by Julius Malema, a former president of the ANC Youth League and current leader of the EFF. The party won more than 6% of the vote in 2014, largely on the back of a plan “to use political power to realise economic justice”, according to the party’s election manifesto. Key EFF policies put forward during the election included the nationalisation of South Africa’s mining industry. Other parties that won seats in the National Assembly in 2014 election include the Inkatha Freedom Party, the Congress of the People, the African Christian Democratic Party and the Agang South Africa Party, among others.

Foreign Affairs

Since the end of apartheid in 1994 South Africa has become a major diplomatic player both on the African continent as well as further afield. The nation is a member of the so-called BRICS bloc of emerging economies along with Brazil, Russia, India and China and is a member of the G20. South Africa has also twice been a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, from 2006-08 and again from 2010-12. The country is also a key player in the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, which serves as a forum for South-South dialogue among member countries and, additionally, engages with the EU on a variety of key issues and maintains a close working relationship with the OECD.

Closer to home, South Africa has been a driving force for increased dialogue and multilateral relations on the African continent. The country is a member of the African Union, the Southern African Customs Union and a number of other regional economic, political and security cooperation schemes. Finally, South Africa has strong bilateral ties with a substantial number of the world’s largest economies. The government has particularly strong ties with China, which is the nation’s largest trading partner, with exports predominantly composed of raw commodity, while other key economic partners include the EU, the US, Saudi Arabia and a handful of countries in East Asia (see analysis).

Labour Issues

South Africa has a vibrant and influential trade union sector, a rarity in Africa. Dialogue and rapport between the private sector and labour has been particularly problematic in recent years, and has resulted in regular work stoppages, including series of strikes in the mining and manufacturing industries that have taken a serious toll on South Africa’s economic growth.

In 2014, for example, a five-month strike of 70,000 mine workers resulted in a decline in mining production of 4.7% in the first quarter. The strike, which had interrupted work at three major platinum-mining companies – namely Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin – resulted in declining manufacturing output across a variety of downstream sectors. This strike was the most recent in a series of job actions that began in August 2012. The demands of the workers have focused largely on improved living conditions and higher pay, with wage demands that are often double the rate of inflation.

Land Reform

Despite two decades of government policies aimed at reforming land transfer and ownership, South Africa’s relatively small white population continues to control the majority of the country’s land. This situation, which can be traced back to a series of racist land laws put in place by the NP under apartheid, is a key issue moving forward and has major implications for the country’s long-term economic growth. Land reform has been a key component of the ANC’s policy platform since 1994, when the party announced that it planned to transfer 30% of South Africa’s white-owned agricultural land to black farmers. By mid-2012 just one-third of this goal had been met, according to data from the Africa Research Institute, a UK-based organisation. As of early 2014 a variety of land redistribution and restitution initiatives were under way (see Agriculture chapter).

Crime & Security

Although the situation has been improving, clamping down on crime has been a key government priority in recent years. According to data from the South African Police Service, from April 2012 through to March 2013 the nation’s murder rate was 31.3 per 100,000 people, which was around 4.5-times higher than the global average murder rate of 6.9 per 100,000. This figure was up 4.2% on the previous year. In the same period the attempted murder rate grew by 8.7%. Sexual violence is also a significant problem. According to a 2012 report published by the Institute for Security Studies, a Pretoria-based research organisation, “the prevalence of rape, and particularly multiple perpetrator rape…is unusually high.” To address this concerning issue, the government has invested heavily in the police force and other security forces recently, and private security firms have seen a significant increase in activity.

However, while both the violent and sexual crime rates remain high by international standards, the situation has improved markedly since 1994. The murder rate has decreased by more than half over this two-decade period, from a high of nearly 65 per 100,000 in 1994, for example.


The nation has close ties with both emerging and established powers. South Africa’s ascent as a major diplomatic and economic player within Africa and on the global stage over the past two decades has been swift (see analysis). In December 1994, less than a year after winning South Africa’s first democratic election in a landslide victory, the ANC released a document outlining the party’s perspective on foreign policy. “South Africa is both a trading and maritime nation; our international relations should actively seek to accentuate the significance of these by promoting the economic interests of all our people.” The objectives outlined in this document – namely to promote economic growth, stability and development both at home and abroad – have underpinned the nation’s relations with the rest of the world over the past two decades.


South Africa currently faces many challenges. Despite years of strong economic growth, a substantial percentage of the population continues to lack a variety of basic services, and many people continue to live below the poverty line. Though the country’s health indicators have improved markedly in recent years, HIV/AIDS is still broadly prevalent. While the government’s long-term development plans are generally highly regarded, delivery and execution has occasionally been problematic.

However, despite these and a number of other issues, it is clear that South Africa has made significant progress over the past twenty years. The nation’s constitution, which was put together by the first post-apartheid Parliament and promulgated by President Mandela, is held in high esteem around the world, in large part due to the importance it places on human rights and equality. Efforts by the country to redress the deep-seated grievances and miscarriages of justice in a peaceful and orderly fashion have been similarly impressive and regularly serve as templates in other transitioning political systems. While there are major hurdles that must be cleared, given the country’s strong institutions and the rapid pace of economic expansion over the past two decades, South Africa should be able to look forward to 20 more years of peace and steady, sustained economic growth.

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