Democratic Transitions Elections Freedom and Prosperity Politics & Diplomacy South Africa
New Atlanticist May 24, 2024

Thirty years of South African democracy, visualized

By James Storen and Nina Dannaoui

When South Africans head to the polls on May 29, they will not only be deciding on their political future. They will also be participating in a democracy that turned thirty this year.

On April 27, 1994, nearly twenty million South Africans voted in the country’s first-ever democratic election, electing Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress (ANC) as the country’s president. Propelled into a new era, South Africa ushered in a new constitution, formed a multiparty National Assembly, and officially ended the policy of racial apartheid that had plagued the country for much of the twentieth century.

Thirty years later, up to twenty-eight million South Africans will cast ballots in the country’s seventh national election, one that could be the most consequential since the 1994 vote. The ANC, the party that pushed for the end of apartheid and has led South Africa’s government since 1994, has undoubtedly been responsible for many of the country’s accomplishments. But with growing concern among South Africans about issues such as corruption and inequality, the ANC risks losing its majority.

With South Africa’s political landscape poised to shift once again, it provides a perfect opportunity to examine how the country has fared in the thirty years since overcoming apartheid and becoming a democratic state. Data from the Freedom and Prosperity Indexes, two separate indexes measuring 164 countries around the world according to nineteen different indicators of freedom and prosperity, provide a snapshot into the progress made, the progress lost, and the ongoing challenges and opportunities facing the rainbow nation.

Women’s economic freedom, one of the thirteen indicators in the Freedom Index, stands out as one of South Africa’s most successful accomplishments. Between 1995 and 2022, women’s economic freedom in the country rose from 63.9 to 94.4 out of one hundred, jumping eighteen points between 1995 and 1999 and improving incrementally since. South Africa outpaces its neighbors Botswana and Namibia, two other countries that achieved independence from colonial rule and have since maintained democracy, scoring eighteen points above Namibia and forty-seven above Botswana in 2022.

Notably, women’s economic freedom in South Africa surpassed the average of the world’s freest countries in 1999. Today, South Africa scores just as highly as Switzerland and the United Kingdom, and higher than the United States and Singapore. While disparities in legislation still exist, South Africa has made impressive strides in strengthening women’s economic freedom through numerous reforms. These include the Employment Equity Act of 1998, which prohibits gender-based discrimination in the workplace, the increase of paid maternity leave to fourteen weeks in 2003, and legislation protecting women from sexual harassment in the workplace in 2013. Transitioning from an apartheid state that heavily discriminated on the basis of both race and gender to a democratic country with one of the highest women’s economic freedom scores on the globe, South Africa can serve as an example of progress in this metric.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is inequality, one of the six indicators in the Prosperity Index. In the Index, inequality is measured through the share of a country’s pretax income accrued to the top ten percent of earners. With ten percent of the population owning more than 80 percent of wealth, South Africa suffers from significant income inequality, with wide disparities owing to one’s race, education level, and land ownership. With a score of just 13.3 in 2022, South Africa ranks last worldwide in inequality. As the graph below shows, both Botswana and Namibia struggle with inequality as well. In fact, all three countries ranked in the bottom eight in 2022 and are more than forty-five points behind the free country average. Yet South Africa stands alone in that inequality has worsened rather than improved. In 1995, South Africa’s inequality score stood at 50, twenty-six points below the score of free countries and over forty-five points above Botswana and Namibia. By 2022, South Africa’s score had plummeted by nearly 37 points, while Botswana and Namibia saw improvements and the free country average remained relatively the same.

While the nature of the apartheid system actively fostered inequality with a minority of the population controlling the country’s government and wealth, South Africa’s democratic era exacerbated rather than remedied the issue. The country may be more equal politically, but from an income standpoint, power is more concentrated and unequal than ever.

In the middle lies education. Another of the Prosperity Index’s six indicators, education is measured through both expected and mean years of schooling. South Africa’s education score has improved in the past thirty years, increasing from 37.2 in 1995 to 54.5 in 2022. Additionally, the country scores higher than its neighbors; however, its score remains well below that of free countries.

As the data show, South African education has undoubtedly come a long way since the country became a democracy. South Africa has achieved universal enrollment for primary school students, now has fully integrated schools after decades of segregation, and has established a unified department of education. But numerous challenges persist that keep South Africa’s education from reaching the level of the freest countries; while nearly all South Africans enroll in primary school, just 54 percent pass matric (the equivalent of graduating high school). In addition, many schools suffer from a lack of adequate building and sanitation facilities, and transportation to and from school for students is nonexistent in a number of both rural and urban areas. South Africa’s education trajectory is particularly important as about a third of the population is under the age of eighteen.

As South Africans prepare to cast their ballots on May 29, they will not only decide on who will best represent their interests in the future but have the chance to reflect on how their country has changed since transitioning to democracy in 1994. Overall, freedom and prosperity have seen little fluctuation—South Africa’s freedom saw a slight decrease from 72.5 in 1995 to 70 in 2022, and prosperity remained essentially the same, changing from 60.1 to 60. But this data also points to several important areas that the next administration will likely need to address, especially education and inequality.

James Storen is the program assistant at the Freedom and Prosperity Center.

Nina Dannaoui is the associate director at the Freedom and Prosperity Center.

Further reading

Image: A supporter holds up a picture of former South African President Nelson Mandela at the African National Congress Election Manifesto launch in Durban, South Africa, February 24, 2024. REUTERS/Rogan Ward