April 27 1994 marked the most historic day in the Republic of South Africa’s short history. After 48 years of oppression, the black majority of the country were allowed to partake in the general election, leading to the first fully democratic election the country had seen. Nearly 20 million South Africans took to the polls to register their symbolic vote. A staggering 62 per cent voted for the African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela, who became the country’s first black President. Not only did this mark democracy coming to the South African people, it marked the end of apartheid. This historic day, celebrated as “Freedom Day”, marks an upturn in South Africa’s socio-economic position.
Democracy was not the only gain coming in the post-apartheid era. According to the EISA (Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa), South Africa faced “a stagnant economy with high and rising unemployment, high inequality between and within the different race groups and widespread poverty; moreover South Africa remained a violent and polarised society.” To tackle the economic issues it faced, the government introduced a stringent new economic policy, the ‘Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP)’. This lifted the economic status of South Africa for a short period of time, before a drop in the value of the Rand saw a new approach taken. The ‘Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR)’ policy restructured the economy and trade, with great success as economic growth accelerated from 1.2 per cent in 1993 to 3.6 per cent in 1996.
The years that followed saw the rebirth of a new, more equal, South Africa. John Carlin’s book ‘Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation’, that later became Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film ‘Invictus’, tells the story of how Nelson Mandela united the black and white populations of the fragmented nation. In an article Carlin wrote for the Telegraph, he recalled how Mandela looked to utilise the Springboks, the national rugby team, to reunite the South African people. “Mandela said… Why not use the Springbok team to unite the most divided nation on earth around a common goal?” Prior to the 1995 World Cup, hosted by South Africa themselves, the black population saw the Springboks as a symbolism of apartheid. The predominantly white team were despised by the black population. However, Mandela united the country behind the Springboks for the tournament, and as they lifted the trophy, Carlin believes “the Rainbow Nation was born.”
However, despite making such gains in the few years after the apartheid, it could be suggested that the “rainbow nation” has not gained as much as many may have thought it would. Arguably, the key factor that has held back the development of South Africa, is the poor life expectancy of those living there. According to figures from the CIA World Factbook, South African people have the third lowest life expectancy in the world, with newborns now only expected to live to the age of 49. This means that South Africans have the third lowest life expectancy in the world, with only Guinea and Chad boasting worse life expectancies.
Undoubtedly, the decline in life expectancy is down to the HIV/AIDS epidemic that began in the mid-1990s. With the disease’s origin predicted to be Central Africa and with research suggesting that black Africans are more susceptible to contracting HIV, it isn’t hard to see why South Africans have been so devastatingly affected by it. According to the CIA World Factbook, as of 2009, there were more South Africans living with AIDS than any other nationality. A staggering 17.8 per cent of the population were infected, equating to 5.6 million people, and there were 310,000 reported deaths due to the disease.
But why have South Africans been worse affected than other African countries during this epidemic?
Where HIV/AIDS is such a long term issue, we have to look back at the Presidency of Thabo Mbeki to find a reason why. Mbeki succeeded Mandela as President in 1999, after Mandela stepped down as leader of the ANC party. Mbeki failed to act upon the rapidly spreading disease. According to the EISA, “President Mbeki questioned the scientific consensus that the HIV virus was the cause of AIDS, while the minister of Health asserted that the government could not afford to treat AIDS despite research that demonstrated that it was cheaper to treat the disease than the opportunistic infections arising from it”.
This government inaction forced the formation of the activist group TAC (Treatment Action Campaign), who campaign for the government to make anitretroviral drugs available for those infected with HIV. After much pressure, the Mbeki government reluctantly issued the drugs to the whole population by the end of 2003. Was this too late? During Mbeki’s nine-years as President, life expectancy in South Africa slipped from the high 50s in 1999 to just 50.4 in 2008. A dramatic decline that can largely be put down to the slow government response to the HIV/AIDS crisis. This has left South Africa now holding the highest death rate in the world, with 17.23 people per 1,000 dying each year.
High death rates are not the only problem in modern South Africa. Despite economic gains during both Mandela’s and Mbeki’s Presidencies, unemployment stands just short of 25% of the adult population. Although the 2011 figures show the unemployment rate falling, with nearly a quarter of adults out of work, it is a worrying time for the South African economy. The GDP fell by two per cent in 2009 due to the world financial crisis.
However, despite some bleak statistics, there are signs of gains in South Africa.
The most notable gain is in crime rates. South Africa has developed a reputation in recent years as being rife with crime. In 1999 The Guardian produced an article questioning: “Johannesburg, the most dangerous city on earth?”. Crime statistics released by the South African Police Service, show a serious decline in crime rates in recent years. In 2010/11, there were nearly 4,000 less murders than the same time period in 2006/7. The decline in murders in South Africa perfectly highlights the decline in most areas of crime. Police statistics also show declines in “Sexual Offences”, “Assault with the intent to inflict grievous bodily harm” and a huge drop in “Attempted Murder”. These positive figures highlight the positive changes in South Africa’s social standing and are very important in showing the progress that is being made.
The Presidency of Jacob Zuma has had a positive impact, despite controversies surrounding him. With corruption and rape charges on his record, prior to being elected in 2009, it was difficult to see too great an improvement coming from his Presidency. However, President Zuma has taken an almost revolutionary view (compared to his predecessor) on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In a speech in December 2009, President Zuma said: “We need extraordinary measures to reverse the trends we are seeing in the health profile of our people. We know that the situation is serious. We have seen the statistics. We know that the average life expectancy of South Africans has been falling, and that South Africans are dying at a young age. These facts are undeniable. We should not be tempted to downplay the statistics and impact or to deny the reality that we face. We have to overcome HIV the same way that it spreads – one individual at a time. We have to really show that all of us are responsible.”
Despite the economy declining two per cent in 2009, it recovered in 2010, largely thanks to hosting the 2010 Fifa Football World Cup. Prior to the tournament, questions were asked as to whether South Africa would be capable of hosting such a huge event, whether the stadiums would be ready and if the country would be safe enough. The world’s media were proved wrong. South Africa were awarded nine out of ten by Fifa, with Fifa President Sepp Blatter describing the tournament in a press conference as “pretty close” to perfect. A massive compliment for the first World Cup in Africa. The tournament made thousands of jobs in the build up and significantly increased tourism.
Despite having some overwhelming issues, the future for South Africa is not as bleak as some may think. The CIA World Factbook describes South Africa as, “a middle-income, emerging market with an abundant supply of natural resources; well-developed financial, legal, communications, energy, and transport sectors; and modern infrastructure.” This description shows the potential future that South Africa could (and should) have ahead of it. Being constantly placed alongside other emerging economies, such as Brazil and India, it seems that South Africa has the potential to be considered as a future leader on the world stage. You only have to look back to 1994 to see how far this country has progressed. South Africa is still evolving as a nation and needs time to overcome some of the issues that are currently being faced. Despite warnings of decline, it seems there may be a colourful future for “the Rainbow Nation”.