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South Africa — background

South Africa – background

Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994 after spending more than 27 years in prison, including 18 years on notorious Robben Island. Since 1994 South Africa has come quite far in overcoming apartheid (legally mandated racial separation), but traces remain from more than 300 years of colonialism and 46 years of apartheid.

Political development
The National Party held power from 1948 to 1994, enforcing a hard-line apartheid policy with white rule. The system it oversaw was particularly brutal in the 1960s and 1970s. As international pressure was brought to bear, however, systemic change became inevitable. Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress (ANC), was freed in 1990. Free elections followed in 1994. The current president, Thabo Mbeki, was elected in 1999 and re-elected in 2004.

Since the transition to democracy in 1994, South Africa has experienced a period of political stability despite continuing conflict between political groups. The ANC is the dominant party and received almost 70 percent of the vote in the 2004 election. Lately, however, disagreements have emerged within the ANC. Closing the enormous gap between rich and poor is the government’s most difficult challenge. Another challenge is to cast off the legacy of apartheid – the consequences, that is, of decades-long suppression of the majority’s right to political and economic participation.

An important step in South Africa’s reconciliation efforts has been to confront the past squarely. The country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Desmond Tutu, has given both perpetrators and victims of injustice a chance to tell their stories and receive amnesty. This experiment is unique in the world. South Africa has also produced one of the world’s most modern constitutions, with strong emphasis on the protection of democracy and basic human rights. Special weight is given to rights associated with religion, culture and language and to the promotion of equal status between the sexes.

Social development
South Africa may have undergone more social change in the past decade than any other country in the world, but huge challenges remain in the effort to reduce social disparities while fighting poverty and creating jobs.

Statistically, South Africa is a medium-income country, but the income difference between rich and poor is among the largest in the world, and many of South Africa’s 46 million people live in poverty. According to the Development Bank of Southern Africa, the number of South Africans who live on less than USD 1 per day (adjusted to reflect purchasing power parity) increased from 12.6 million in 1995 to 14.4 million in 2000. The number living on less than $2 per day (PPP) increased from 22.9 million to 25.2 million in the same period.

Unemployment in South Africa stands officially at 26.5 percent, but the figure rises to 40 percent if one counts people who are not actively seeking work. The percentage is far higher for vulnerable groups such as women, blacks and residents of rural villages. Criticism has been levelled at the government’s policy of promoting black participation and ownership in the economy because it is said that the policy has benefited only a small black elite.

South Africa has been hard hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and is among those countries in the world with the greatest number of HIV-infected citizens. In the battle against AIDS South African authorities have insisted that condoms and medicines are not enough. The government has reluctantly enacted a programme for the distribution of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, but the programme has been severely delayed. No other country is more in need of an ARV treatment programme. President Mbeki and the South African minister of health have made a series of claims that call into question their attitude to HIV/AIDS. The government has been accused of lacking political leadership in the struggle against the disease.

(Updated November 2005