Since the democratic transition in 1994, South Africa has notched up some considerable achievements. It is important to bear these in mind when taking a balanced view on the state of the country in 2012. As Ann Bernstein argues: “South Africa is a complex society. No-one predicted the remarkable transition away from apartheid and non-resident commentators about the country and its prospects frequently get South Africa wrong, exaggerating difficulties without placing these within a comprehensive appreciation of the current state of the nation.”

Highlighting some of the achievements of 17 years of transition, Bernstein notes that service delivery for millions of black South Africans has gone up. Housing opportunities have improved, as have access to electricity, water and refuse disposal. The country has one of the highest rates of access to schooling in the developing world. In 1995, there were 463,000 university graduates and this went up to 1.1 million in 2011 with dramatic increases in black graduates almost all of whom have found employment. And of course the country has a democratic constitution, a bill of rights, the freest press in Africa, a constitutional court of international renown and an independent judiciary.

These achievements notwithstanding, South Africa in 2012 is a country with some profound challenges. The current political leadership is struggling to cope with the demands of running Africa’s largest and most sophisticated economy. They are not up to the job. The quality of schooling for the vast majority of South Africans is very weak with the country coming lower on international tests of performance than almost all other developing countries including many poorer societies. Unemployment is massive with youth unemployment at a devastating 50 per cent. Corruption is a growing problem in public and private sectors.

However it is important to remember that crises often bring opportunities to reform. South Africa is a dynamic society with a relatively large business sector and vibrant civil society. Since the democratic transition the country has had numerous elections – all ‘free and fair’ – and in the last local government elections the opposition party managed to get the votes of one in four voters.

What South Africa needs is visionary leadership that can see the enormous potential of a country that builds on the contribution and talents of all its citizens within a market oriented economy and an effective limited state. It is only in such circumstances that democracy will be consolidated and millions of South Africans provided with hope for a better future.

The discussion was moderated by the Legatum Institute's Director of the Transitions Forum, Anne Applebaum.

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