Freedom Day Report Card: Evaluating SA 26 Years Later

How has South Africa's democracy progressed?

Freedom Day Report Card: Evaluating SA 26 Years Later

On this day, 26 years ago, South Africa’s democracy was born. And to mark this special day, we have compiled a progress report on how well our country has done to honour the legacy of the brave men and women that fought against the oppressive Apartheid regime.

Some of us may be too young to remember this day in 1994 and for others it may just be a dim memory that seems insignificant. But we shouldn’t be too quick to take our history for granted, because when millions of black South Africans queued for hours to cast their votes for the first time in their lives, it was a true triumph of the human spirit and a monumental step forward for all of mankind.

I know we often look at South Africa and feel depressed about our country, but at least on this one day we should remember how we became a shining example for freedom fighters the world over. It is Nelson Mandela’s legacy, and he became a global icon for good reason. However, the man that we affectionately knew as ‘Madiba’ also knew that the battle had just begun and there was a lot to be done before South African lives could truly be changed for the better. So, we’re going to take a look at a few key indicators of what truly makes South Africans “free” and how we’ve progressed on the front over the last 26 years.

Photo: Leila Dougan

Political Freedoms

Among the true triumphs of our leaders from the earliest days of our democracy was the securing of our freedoms through the final text of the South African constitution, which was adopted in October 1996.

It was based primarily on the 1952 Freedom Charter, which is reflected in the Bill of Rights, but also is loosely based on the widely celebrated constitution of the United States of America. While America is a very different place to South Africa, and is a very flawed nation in its own right, its founding principles are all but faultless. As a result of the mix between those founding principles, our Bill of Rights, and the democratic visionaries who were responsible for this crucial legislation, South Africa can boast that it has one of the finest written constitutions in the world.

The most fundamental laws in our country are the envy of the world. I’d highly recommend Mark S. Kende’s Constitutional Rights in Two Worlds: South Africa and the United States as a reference point for exactly what makes our political freedoms so valuable. Theoretically, we knocked the ball out of the park – but has it held up in practice?

Freedom House, a non-profit, Independent organisation that scores 210 countries around the world on the level of freedom within these nations, awards South Africa a score of 79 out of a possible 100. This comprises of a score of 33 out of 40 for political rights and 46 out of 60 for civil liberties. In comparison, Australia scores 97, the United States scores 86 and China scores 10.

The methodology used to evaluate these freedoms is incredibly thorough and objective, and you can find the details of the methodology here. All in all, considering Zimbabwe’s score of 42, it’s safe to say that the level of freedom in South Africa has held up rather well, but there is still room for improvement.

Final mark: B+

Photo by M. B. M. on Unsplash

The Economy

In the year 1994, South Africa’s GDP was valued at $134.3 billion ($6,492 per capita) and was growing at 3.2%. The inflation rate was 8.8% and we had 22.9% unemployment.

In 2018, our GDP stood at $368,3 billion. And, with the exception of the year 2009, most of those figures, except for inflation and unemployment have been steadily improving on a regular basis. In fact, under the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, one could easily say that South Africa’s economy was doing really well.

For example, in 2006 our growth rate hit an all-time high at 5.6% – the kind of figure that developed economies around the world can only dream of. However, even then, in times of economic growth, our unemployment rate still stood at a staggering 23.6%. In comparison, at the height of the Great Depression in 1933, the US unemployment rate was 24.9%.

We also need to bear in mind that, in the middle of all of this, we hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which was at the heart of a massive period of economic growth and allowed us to make radical improvements to our infrastructure. However, even with the billions invested in our country for that massive event, even with the spikes in tourism and a whole host of other advantages that it brought, we have hardly anything to show for it besides a few MyCiti Bus terminals and stadiums that are almost never filled to capacity for our sporting events (with the exception of the Cape Town 7s). However, this is just the start to a very, very scary story.

We all know that South Africa was recently downgraded to Junk status by all major lending agencies, taking any kind of economic investment off of the table. On Friday, rating agency Moody’s predicted a 6.5% contraction for South Africa’s economy, saying that the R500 billion ($26.55 billion) coronavirus rescue package announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa would only serve to weaken public finances and constrain the government’s ability to handle the economic crisis that it faces even without the coronavirus pandemic being factored into the equation.

This would certainly follow the downward trend that saw our GDP shrink by 1.4% in the last quarter of 2019. The truly frightening statistic, however, is that 29.1% of South Africans are now out of work, as per the government’s official statistics. That number is likely to be even worse when the coronavirus pandemic is factored into the equation. And worst of all, the country has a debt to GDP ratio of 62.2%, as of December. The South African economy is truly on the verge of implosion and a dream of economic liberation for South Africans is all but dead and buried.

Final mark: F

Image: Reuters/Mike Hutchings via The Conversation

Household income

The Median wage in South Africa is R3,300 per month, with each salary supporting 3.5 people (R930 per person or R30 per person, per day). To a lot of us, this should be utterly frightening and completely eye opening. More than 25% of the country falls below the poverty line of R561 per person per month, with 7.5 million people (in urban areas alone) earning less than R2,500 per month (approximately 28% of the country). In fact, to be part of the top 1% of richest South Africans, your income just needs to be R48,753 per month (after tax) – that’s only $2,581.91!

Now there’s a very obvious reason for why these figures are so shocking and that is the degree of inequality in our country. We have a Gini coefficient of 0.63 in South Africa, making us the most unequal society in the world (along with Lesotho), where a coefficient of 1 means that it’s completely unequal (one person holds all of the wealth) and 0 means it’s completely equal.

Norway’s Gini coefficient is 0.275 and the Ukraine’s is 0.25, while the United States’ is 0.415. Now, what’s more important to note here is that our Gini coefficient was 0.61 in 1996, meaning we are more unequal today than we were back then – a truly scary thought.

South African households are struggling more today than they were in the earliest days of our democracy, before the government had spent any significant period of time investing in infrastructure or specific sectors to combat the legacy of apartheid-era policies that were designed to create the inequalities that continue to prevail today.

Final mark: F

Picture: Dumisani Sibeko/IOL


When we follow the train of thought in distinguishing between South Africa’s successes and failures, we must look towards where our government’s efforts have been focused and where we are spending the money. From the earliest days of our democracy, the number one area that we’ve invested in has been healthcare. And, at this time where we face a healthcare crisis in the form of the coronavirus, we need to look at what we have to show for it.

In nominal terms, South Africa went from spending R18.7 billion in 1995/96 on healthcare to over R220 billion in 2019/20.

In 2015/16 real prices, that is an increase from R68 million to R176.5 million, according to the South African health review.

Healthcare spending in 2017 accounted for 8.8% of GDP, which is a sizeable amount and 4% higher than the WHO’s recommended spending for a country of its socioeconomic status.

However, healthcare spending in South Africa is two-tiered, with funding split between private and public healthcare provisions. The private healthcare sector gets roughly half of the total healthcare spending but only serves roughly 16% of South Africa’s population, while the other 84% of the country has to fight over what’s left.

While 80% of South African respondents report that they are in good health, only 33% of medical professionals agree that the population as a whole is in good health, showing that we are rather optimistic about our health, which is a good thing in some ways, but frightening in others.

Research by the South African Human Systems Trust (HST) suggests that there are about 1.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people in South Africa. And there are only roughly 3,000 critical beds available across the entire country. Germany has 8.13 beds per 1000, while Brazil has 1.98. India is way on the other end of the spectrum with roughly 0.55 hospital beds per 1000 people.

So how does this translate into healthcare outcomes? One particularly frightening statistic published by Avert found that 26% of South African women are living with HIV and 7.7 million people around the country (20.4%) are HIV positive. 33.8 children out of 1,000 die before they reach the age of 5. And in 2014 there were over 28,000 reported cases of malaria throughout the country.

However, as frightening as South Africa’s healthcare system is, there is currently a concerted effort being made to assure healthcare availability to all South Africans regardless of their socioeconomic status – the National Health Insurance policy. For all the skepticism and assumption that the policy will serve as yet another slush fund for rent-seeking government officials and fears over the seemingly inevitable destruction of our functional private healthcare system, at least some kind of initiative is being put forward and public participation in determining the terms of such a scheme has been encouraged.

The policy is highly complex but has the potential to be a fundamental game-changer for millions of South Africans and I’d like to be fair and give the government the benefit of the doubt (whether they deserve it or not). At least there is some cause for optimism, misguided as it may be. After all, things could only get better from here, right?

Final mark: D-

Photo: Amnesty International


This is a subject that I, like many others, would like to place a lot of emphasis on. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that education is at the foundation of any journey to self-empowerment and it’s only natural that South Africans all feel strongly about the necessity for access to high quality education.

Now, over the years, we know that the South African government has spent a lot of money on education. In the darkest days of Apartheid, in 1989, the South African government spend only 4.85% of its GDP on education, while it was prioritised under the democratic government and rose as high as 6.37% in 2012.

Expenditure on the basic education portfolio is set to increase from R247 billion in 2018/19 to R282 billion in 2020/21, according to a UNICEF report on South Africa’s education system. Although figures can differ from one report to another, UNICEF as an independent entity might be thought of as a more reliable source for impartial data and they show that education actually accounts for a larger portion of our GDP than healthcare – yet, I’ll allow the reader to decide which sources they’d prefer to trust.

However, one thing is clear – South Africa’s government’s primary commitment is towards healthcare and education and, in respect to education, it serves to counter (or at least it should) the Apartheid era policy defined by the Bantu Education Act of 1953, which resulted in the segregation of education facilities.

The discrepancy between “white”, former model-C schools and the schools that were designated for non-white South African children under the old regime very much continues to exist to this day. The prominence of the Bantu Education Act in entrenching the National Party’s intent to disenfranchise people of colour in South Africa cannot be underestimated and they carried out their programs to great effect. However, tearing things down will always be easier than propping them back up. In this respect, the government under the ANC has always faced an uphill battle. Yet, to say they’ve failed to rise to the challenge would be the understatement of the century.

A telling article in The Daily Maverick, revealed research conducted on 12 no-fee public schools in Gauteng and 26 in the Eastern Cape that make for incredibly frightening reading. While President Ramaphosa starts talking about a digital economy in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, about 18,000 out of roughly 23,000 South African schools do not have a Library, and 20,000 have no laboratory. A total of 4,358 are using pit latrines and 37 schools have no sanitation facilities whatsoever. Furthermore, 269 schools don’t have any electricity.

These figures all come from an Amnesty International report that claims that the worst of the schools in the country “are largely in areas formerly set aside for black South Africans.” Again, we see a discrepancy in the figures, with Amnesty International reporting that education accounted for 16.7% of government spending as of 2019/20. They also say that the prevailing problems in our systems can be blamed on “the democratic government’s failure to properly govern and account for money spent”.

“A child’s experience of education in South Africa still very much depends on where they are born, how wealthy they are and the colour of their skin,” the report noted. 48% of the Gauteng respondents in the report claimed that their school had not been renovated at all in the last 20 years, while 62% of the Eastern Cape schools made the same claim. And, not only this, but the Department of Education is on course to break its promise to provide all schools in the country with perimeter fencing, classrooms, electricity, sanitation, and water by 29 November 2020.

Even scarier is not what is happening with the schools formerly reserved for black children, but with those that were formerly reserved for white kids. The government has taken something of an “if you can’t beat them, join them” policy and has taken the idea of equal education to mean that it makes better sense to lower the standards of the schools that perform well.

Many of our parents will remark on their time at a certain school, saying that it was a reputable school “back in the day”, but that its reputation has nosedived since the “new government” came to power. The pass mark for matriculating students has dropped lower than ever. As of 2019, a matric student needs to take at least 7 subjects and need to pass their home language at a minimum of 40%, two other subjects at 40% , and three others at 30% in order to obtain a higher certificate pass.

What’s exceptionally scary is that the required mark to pass maths is 30% and only 54% of South Africa’s outgoing matric students in 2019 managed to pass, while only 2% achieved a distinction mark of between 80% and 100%. So, the South African government has lowered the standard of education and the benchmark for what is deemed acceptable performance. Funding for schools had dropped off, despite massively high budget allocations and we haven’t even begun to look at what’s happening at the tertiary institutions.

Now, bear this all in mind, as well as the fact that many students of colour in our universities today are the first in their families to have had the chance to pursue a higher education. Can you imagine how alienating it feels to have come from a disadvantaged background where you were told a mark of 30% is good enough only to enter a system of higher education where a pass mark is 50%, where the workload is significantly higher and the difficulty of the work is also far higher than that of secondary education? And, on top of all this, even if you have successfully attained a bursary from the vastly underfunded National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), you are plunging yourself into debt to pursue an education that you are not equipped for. For many students around the country, this also means leaving their homes and living either in a rented apartment or, if they’re lucky, university residence.

The accommodation costs and the fees, factoring the already low household incomes of South Africans is a recipe for disaster. This all culminated in the Fees Must Fall fiasco of 2015 that continues to plague almost every university, training college and technicon throughout the country. Students burn tires and classrooms. Even the students who are satisfied with their education are forced to stay home because lectures are brought to a halt for the simple reason of protecting students’ safety. As a result, the chances of attaining a decent standard of education in South Africa, university educated or otherwise, are closer to zero than we care to admit.

Final mark: F

Image: Pinterest


Another focus area of South African frustration is our infrastructure. South Africa ranks 53rd in the world in terms of the 2014 Kiel Institutes World Economy Report‘s evaluation of various nations’ infrastructure. This is a combination of transport (roads, railroads, airlines, etc.), ICT (communication infrastructure like postal services and internet access), energy, and financial services (banking, stock markets, etc).

What’s more interesting is the progression of our position in this ranking. We had climbed two spots higher from our ranking of 55 in the year 1990, but, in the year 2000 we occupied 43rd position and in 2010 we were 50th! So, despite an influx of investment in post-apartheid South Africa and ahead of the 2010 World Cup, we were hardly any better off than we were under the previous regime, where our government was only interested in providing services to a tiny minority of the population.

In comparison (unfair as it may be), China had jumped from 58th in 1990 to 28th in 2014. India jumped from 52nd position to 35th. Portugal, who were 48th in 1990 were 31st. The report hasn’t been updated for six years, but one can only imagine that it would read far worse for us today.

The drought faced by the Western Cape in 2017 and 2018, with crippling water restrictions, the constant threat of load-shedding that has plagued the country for well over a decade and the all-but-collapsed public transport infrastructure (first and foremost with regards to our trains and PRASA) do not bode well for a facet of society which is at the forefront of every economic success story. And this in not even mentioning the prevalence of potholes in our roads around the country or even touching on the lack of any tarred roads whatsoever in rural parts of the country where a massive portion of our population live.

Final mark: F

Freedom? What freedom?

I tried. Honestly, I did. I tried everything I could to find something positive to report on about our country’s progress since we turned into a democracy 26 years ago. I hoped I could find something to create a sense of hope and, even in spite of what I’ve discussed here, I still have hope. I believe our achievements all those years ago in overthrowing an oppressive regime are testament to a South African spirit, a sense of optimism, our determination to fight through the darkest hours in our history and our ability to come out on top. My wish was to find that glimmer of hope, to reassure you that we can do better.

Unfortunately, I cannot do any better than look back to that glorious moment in our history and implore my compatriots to keep believing in our ability to come out of these dark days and live out the dreams of our standard bearing heroes and icons of the past. However, there genuinely isn’t enough evidence for me to fool you, the reader, into believing that we will do better. Freedom has not been won for South Africa and rather than rising to the challenge of the uphill battle that we faced in 1994, we’ve succumbed to an entirely new regime of complacency, corruption and incompetence. So, one must ask the question as to whether we are truly free.

We are just one year into President Ramaphosa’s term and, again, I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt and express some words of encouragement towards him and a refurbished ANC that has stated its intentions to dispel rent-seeking, curtail cronyism and take bold steps towards a brave new future. If anything, things can only get better from here. Hopefully over the next 26 years we’ll be able to write a different story.

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