But while democracy has delivered freedom for all South Africans, not enough has changed for those living in the country’s vast townships.
In fact, despite 25 years of democracy, South Africa remains the most economically unequal country in the world, according to the World Bank. If anything, the rainbow nation is even more divided now than it was in 1994.
In many ways, the legacy of apartheid endures. Previously disadvantaged South Africans hold fewer assets, have fewer skills, earn lower wages, and are still more likely to be unemployed, a 2018 World Bank report on poverty and inequality in South Africa found.
And, at the other end of the spectrum, an elite, mainly white minority continues to thrive.
While the African National Congress (ANC) is expected to win again in Wednesday’s national elections, it may be facing an increasingly disillusioned electorate.
The gap between rich and poor is wider in South Africa than in any other country where comparable data exist, the World Bank found.
Mthandazo Ndlovu, Oxfam South Africa’s democracy and governance manager, say inequality has been exacerbated as a result of “systemic failures at a government level.”
It’s not just income inequality that is cause for concern, he adds, but also unequal access to opportunities and essential public services.
“One would have assumed that 25 years into democracy we would have had better access to land, better access to health care, we would not have children falling into pit latrines due to failures in the provision of ablution facilities,” he said.
This is not to say the government hasn’t made significant strides in leveling the playing field, he added. Access to basic services such as electricity, water, education and health care has improved considerably since the ANC came into power, according to the World Bank report.
But a fraction of the population still enjoys the lion’s share of the spoils while the rest struggle to make ends meet.
South Africa’s richest households are almost 10 times wealthier than poor households, according to World Bank estimates.
“If you look at the number of people who sleep on an empty stomach, these numbers are quite shocking,” adds Ndlovu.
Poverty levels are highest among the black population, followed by South Africa’s “coloured” population — the accepted term for mixed-race people in the country.
In South Africa, the white population makes up the majority of the elite — or top 5% — explained Murray Leibbrandt, economics professor at the University of Cape Town.
Part of Leibbrandt’s work has involved tracking the social progress of 30,000 South Africans from 2008 to 2017.
“The best signifier of a country that’s really on its way isn’t a society with no inequality,” he said. “It’s a society with declining inequality and a growing middle class.”
By Leibbrandt’s estimates, South Africa’s middle class is small and sluggish, and comprises approximately one in five South Africans.
While the middle class has hardly grown since 2008, the black percentage of the middle class has increased from 47% to 64%, he says.
“The picture that we pick up in our statistics is that we haven’t been successful in breathing transformation through the country. And it fractures the country.”
Levels of inequality in South Africa appear to be passed down from generation to generation.
“It’s a very embedded phenomenon that doesn’t change very quickly, because it’s the result of the way the whole society coheres,” Leibbrandt said.
The way forward, he suggested, starts with South Africans recognizing the situation as it is right now.
“The point is that this inequality and these livelihoods of people, that is their daily life. And so if we are going to try and flourish together … then we do need to try and understand that.”