Just 18 years ago South Africa was a divided state, emerging from the shadow of apartheid and decades of political isolation to become Africa’s newest democracy. The years since have been marked by both struggle and triumph. While the hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 2010 was a spectacular demonstration of national progress, South Africa faces many political challenges as it continues along its path of transformation. In facing them, though, the country has the advantage of some of the most respected institutions on the continent.

CONSTITUTION: Chief among South Africa’s political successes it the country’s constitution, which was written in the early post-apartheid era following the 1994 elections. The three parties that made up the Government of National Unity – the African National Congress (ANC), the National Party (NP) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) – established the core principles on which the country’s future was to be built. The result of the negotiations was a constitution that is today considered to be one of the most progressive in the world.

It is perhaps best known for its second chapter, a Bill of Rights, in which the questions of human rights are expounded upon over 35 sections. Mindful of the country’s recent undemocratic past, its authors included a further chapter establishing a number of related commissions and offices, such as the South African Human Rights Commission and the Commission for Gender Equality.

To date, the constitution has been left largely intact, the 16 amendments since it came into effect in 1997 considered uncontroversial. However, this may change in 2012 as a result of the government’s attempts to introduce the Protection of State Information Bill. Passed by the lower house in 2011, by early 2012 it was destined for the upper house and its signing into law by the president.

While its supporters claim the bill will safeguard national security, its opponents maintain that the legislation, which provides for sentences of up to 25 years for anyone in possession of classified government documents, is an attack on free speech and an attempt to stifle investigative journalism, which has increasingly pursued allegations of corruption by senior ANC officials. The main opposition party has threatened to petition the constitutional court to have the bill declared unconstitutional if it is passed in its current form.

STRUCTURE OF GOVERNMENT: The constitution establishes South Africa as a parliamentary representative democratic republic, wherein the elected president of South Africa exercises executive power and acts as both head of state and head of government. Legislative power is wielded by both the government and two chambers of parliament, the National Assembly (the lower house) and the Council of Provinces (the upper house).

The judiciary operates as an independent arm of government which, with elected representatives at the local, provincial and national levels, is a three-tiered system. All levels of government in South Africa are subject to a five-year election cycle conducted according to the proportional representation system, while the president is elected by the National Assembly and relies on the confidence of that body to remain in office.

CLIMBING THE RANKS: South Africa scores well in civic society rankings, described by the lobbying group Reporters Without Borders as having had the 38th-most-free press in the world in 2010. Political participation also remains high. In 2011 local government elections resulted in the biggest turnout since the landmark 1995 municipal election, at 58%. The Independent Electoral Commission, a permanent body established by the constitution to manage equitable elections across the government, pronounced the 2011 poll to be free and fair.

Nevertheless, the short life of the democratic state means the country’s governmental system retains a degree of fragility. In a recent study carried out by the University of Cape Town, only 10% of respondents thought that voters should hold MPs accountable, while 40% believed that presidents should be able to “decide everything.”

PARTIES: South Africa is a multi-party democracy with about 80 political parties, 13 of which are currently represented in the National Assembly. While the decision to use a proportional representation electoral system was taken with a view to boosting the participation of smaller parties, the ANC has dominated the electoral landscape since the first democratic elections of 1994. Having gained 65.9% of the vote in the 2009 National Assembly elections, the ANC in 2012 holds a comfortable majority and governs the country in a formal alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), which do not stand separately for election.

Since being founded in 1912, the ANC has progressed from an illegal, underground organisation to the party which oversaw the dismantling of apartheid under Nelson Mandela. The overarching themes of its political discourse are the reduction of poverty and increasing economic growth, to which end it adopted the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macroeconomic strategy in 1996.

GEAR was formulated according to the precepts of the Reconstruction and Development Programme, a policy guide adopted by the ANC in 1994 which set out the principles by which the country might be transformed from a divided society to one with equal opportunities for all. The party’s political philosophy can be traced back to a much earlier document – the Freedom Charter of 1955, which remains the party’s cornerstone policy document to this day. In January 2012, President Jacob Zuma, the ANC’s third national leader, led the party in celebrating its 100th anniversary (see analysis).

THE OPPOSITION: With 67 seats in the current parliament, the Democratic Alliance (DA) is South Africa’s official opposition party, and is the political descendant of the Progressive Federal Party which opposed apartheid during the era of white parliaments. It runs on a platform of free market principles and liberal democracy, and has been led since 2007 by former Cape Town mayor and premier of the Western Cape, Helen Zille. Zille has opted against moving to the National Assembly, where the caucus of 77, including 10 seats in the National Council of Provinces, has instead been represented since October 2011 by Lindiwe Mazibuko.

The Congress of the People Party contested an election for the first time in 2009, winning 7.42% of the vote and 30 seats. Formed in 2008, it is a breakaway group from the ANC, and largely made up of ANC members disgruntled with Thabo Mbeki’s ousting. The most prominent members are Mosiuoa Lekota, the former minister of defence; former COSATU president Willie Madisha; and Mbhazima Shilowa and Barney Pityana, the vice-chancellor and principal of the University of South Africa. At its first convention, the party adopted the principles of constitutional supremacy, social cohesion, equality before the law and participatory democracy as the central tenets of its manifesto.

The IFP is the fourth-largest party in current parliament, with 18 seats in the National Assembly. Founded in 1975 as the Inkatha National Cultural Liberation Movement by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and still led by him today, its constituency is largely made up of Zulu-speaking South Africans from the rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal and some of Gauteng’s metropolitan areas. The IFP adopted its modern form in 1990, at which time it promoted the idea of federalism as the most suitable form of government for South Africa. While it endorses the government’s GEAR macroeconomic strategy, it believes that it is being implemented too slowly. It also runs on the principle that traditional leaders should be incorporated into the system of government.

The remaining National Assembly seats are divided between the Independent Democrats (4), United Democratic Movement (4), Freedom Front Plus (4), African Christian Democratic Party (3), United Christian Democratic Party (1), Pan Africanist Congress (1), Minority Front (1), Azanian People’s Organisation (1), African People’s Convention (1), SACP and the New National Party (NNP).

SHIFTING POWER: While single parties connected with resistance frequently dominate the political sphere of newly liberated countries, with the ANC maintaining an overwhelming dominance, the Democratic Alliance since 1994 has steadily increased its scope of electoral influence.

After gaining just 1.7% of the vote in the country’s first democratic election, the Alliance increased its share to 10% in 1999, 12.4% in 2004 and 16.6% in 2009. Its strengthening performance led to hopes that it might effect what it termed a “realignment of South African politics” in the local elections of 2011, from which it would challenge the ruling party for control in the general election of 2014.

In the local elections, the Democratic Alliance took 23.9% of the vote and 1555 council seats against the ANC’s 62% and 5633 seats – a strong showing, if not a realignment of power. However, it would be prudent not to overstate that case, given that, while the share of opposition votes might be on the rise, the ANC’s power base has not declined: the 65.9% of the vote gained by President Zuma in the 2009 election was, in fact, an improvement on the 62.65% attained by Nelson Mandela in 1994.

TRANSFORMATION AGENDA: The ANC government, supported by the opposition in principle, has long made a national transformation agenda one of its overarching policy priorities, aiming to address the societal imbalance left by the apartheid regime. Meanwhile the government’s GEAR programme and the more recent Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa both address the economic facet of the process at a national level. By placing focus on infrastructure investment, skills enhancement, support for small and medium-sized businesses, and macroeconomic stabilisation, the government has moved to tackle race-related inequality in a more direct fashion.

ECONOMIC EMPOWERMENT: Additionally, the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2003, commonly referred to as BEE, sets out the government policy of situating black economic empowerment “within the context of a broader national empowerment strategy”. The broad objectives of the BEE policy include an alteration to the racial composition of ownership and management structures of new and existing enterprises as well as in skilled occupations, increased access to finance for black people, the empowerment of rural communities, the development of black South Africans as a human resource through programmes such as mentorships and internships, preferential government procurement policies for black-owned businesses, and the promotion of black women as owners and managers of new enterprises.

In practice, state bodies must comply with BEE principles as defined by a set of more explicit codes published in 2007, while their compliance is measured against the simultaneously issued BEE Scorecard. Private companies must apply the codes if they wish to conduct business with the state, and are encouraged by the preferential procurement policy to observe them in their interactions with each other. Multinationals which are unable to comply with the ownership element of BEE, which is usually satisfied through the sale of shares to black South Africans, may make an “equity equivalent” contribution measured against 25% of the value of the their South African operations, or against 4% of their total revenue annually over the measured period.

LAND REFORM: Also related to the issue of black empowerment is the complex question of land reform. At the end of the apartheid era, only 13% of commercial farmland was owned by black South Africans. Bringing black ownership of farmland up to 30% became one of the central policy pillars of the newly elected ANC government in 1994.

The White Paper on South African Land Policy of 1997 solidified this objective. In marked contrast to the confiscatory model adopted by Zimbabwe, the document established a regime based on the principle of “willing seller, willing buyer” at the market price. However, by 2011 only 6m ha of a targeted total of 25m ha had been bought by the government, and nearly 30% of the land which had been handed over to aspirant black farmers had been sold back to its original owners, according to Gugile Nkwinti, minister of rural development and land reform.

Critics of the policy have pointed out that white farmers with outstanding claims on their land are reluctant to invest in their properties, while black farmers have been settled in groups on commercial farms have suffered from lack of support, disintegrating as a collective to leave an individual to manage the land unproductively. The result has been a rise in the amount of fallow land and, after decades of self-sufficiency, South Africa is becoming a net importer of food products.

President Zuma acknowledged the need for a new land reform framework in 2009, and in late 2011 the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform released a green paper on the subject.

However, while some proposals – including the creation of a Valuer General to bring clarity to the valuations and expropriations process – were welcomed, some criticised the document for its failure to address the more difficult questions of how the state will acquire land to meet its target, the status of the “willing seller, willing buyer” model, how to solve conflicts surrounding tenure rights and how women’s rights to land can be established.

FOREIGN POLICY: While the current challenges of the domestic agenda continue to preoccupy the government, South Africa maintains an active foreign policy programme. Its transition from an apartheid state to a democracy resulted in a significant readjustment of its foreign relations in 1994, which saw it join the South African Development Community, the Organisation of African Unity and the Movement of Non-Aligned Nations, as well as staging a return to the Commonwealth and the UN General Assembly after decades of suspension.

GLOBAL PRESENCE: In 2006 South Africa joined the G77 group, and has since been admitted to the G20 and the BRIC bloc of countries, which was renamed BRICS as a result of its inclusion. As a modern democracy with a military force, South Africa has joined the international community in signing the Protocol I and II amendments of the Geneva Convention, while on the regional level it is a signatory to the African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty.

South Africa also recognises the authority of the International Criminal Court established in 2002, although it has expressed concern regarding the application of the court’s rule to some African issues, propounding the concept of amnesty for certain cases. Having played a central role in the creation of the African Union, which held its first assembly at the Durban Summit of 2002, the country continues to play a central part in striving for its objective of continental socio-economic integration.

On January 1, 2011 it assumed a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for the second time, having previously been elected to the position by the General Assembly in 2007. In a statement to the local press in late 2010, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the minister of international relations and cooperation, stated that South Africa would use the seat to promote the Security Council’s “cooperation with regional organisations, particularly the African Union’s Peace and Security Council of which South Africa is currently a member”.

These objectives are in line with South Africa’s long-held advocacy of multilateralism at the global level. However, while this concern represents an approach that is consistent within the framework of the country’s wider foreign policy, the stance it has recently taken on some international developments has led to accusations the country’s international agenda lacks direction (see analysis).

INTERNAL CHALLENGES: In pushing its transformation agenda, South Africa faces a number of challenges. The issue of crime has been high on a list of domestic concerns since a UN Survey ranked the country second in a data set of 60 countries for assault and murder and first for rape over a period extending from 1998 to 2000.

In response to allegations of inaction, the government sought to address violent crime by introducing a gun amnesty in January 2010, which ended in April of that year with a promise that any person found in possession of an illegal firearm would face the full force of the law. In 2012, the government announced that during 2010/11 the country witnessed a year-on-year 5% decline in the number of serious crimes reported.

Corruption also represents a challenge for the country’s further development. The 2010 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index ranked South Africa 54th out of 178 countries. Additionally, in 2011 an investigation of the Ministry of Public Works discovered around R3bn ($367.2m) of improperly disbursed funds, with the auditor-general stating that R26bn ($3.2bn) had been spent “irregularly” in the preceding year.

However, the government has moved to tackle the problem, setting up numerous anti-corruption bodies including a Special Investigation Unit to deal with graft and organised crime. President Zuma has also surprised critics by appointing a well-regarded judge to lead a long-running arms-deal enquiry in which he has been implicated.

An unemployment level of around 25% in South Africa is a further hindrance to economic development. In an attempt to combat the problem the government in 2011 announced a R150bn ($18.4bn), three-year job-creation programme. About half of the funding is being channelled into a public works programme which plans to add 900,000 jobs to the economy and is part of a broader scheme to create 5m jobs over the next decade.

OUTLOOK: These and other challenges will form the basis of political discourse in the coming years. In the short term, the unity of the ANC will be tested once again as the President Zuma strives to gather his party around him before his bid for a second term in office, expected to take place at the party conference in December 2012.

In the longer term, a number of more abstract issues must be resolved. These include the adherence to the laws established in the constitution, upholding the continued independence of the judiciary, and resolving the struggles between the idealists and the pragmatists within the government.