When people think of South Africa often the first thing that comes to mind is apartheid. South Africa was certainly not unique in having racism as part of government policy. In the 1950s the United States was also deeply segregated, and first nations people in Canada live on reservations. The South African difference was one of scale; whites were outnumbered nearly ten to one.
South Africa remains a very racially divided country. Some of these divisions are voluntary. When we walk through Cape Town we see some restaurants and shops that are full of white people, and some that are full of black people. Bars work much the same way. Sometimes this is price related, but often it is cultural. Blacks do have a different culture and the choice of music and food in an establishment will change who that establishment appeals so. If somebody opened a dance club in Calgary that played Indian Rock videos and served Dahl it would get a very different audience than one that played rap music.
The bigger divisions are economic though. Since the end of Apartheid, the incomes of Indians have risen sharply and are now on par with those of whites. Black incomes however have seen little progress. So while whites can't send their kids to white only schools and live in white neighborhoods, they can certainly send their kids to expensive private schools and live in expensive neighborhoods. While some blacks have moved in they are still a tiny minority.
Initially there was hope that with blacks running the country conditions would improve rapidly. And while some things have gotten better, South Africa certainly hasn't turned into the tolerant multiracial democracy that many people had hoped for. While Nelson Mandela was a wonderful surprise, the current leadership of the ANC have been a profound disappointment. The post Mandela ANC has two main claims to fame: their unwavering support for unsavory dictators like Robert Mugabe who they hold up as a paragon of democracy, and destructive AIDS policies which blamed the disease on a white conspiracy rather than a virus.
What the ANC haven't done is make any progress in tackling the vast underemployment of the black population. Some of the attempts have actually been counter productive. Affirmative action programs have removed many qualified whites from their jobs and replaced them with blacks. Unfortunately, many of the whites were highly-educated and experienced professionals while, to be blunt, many of the replacements aren't. The result has been catastrophic on two levels. First of all huge numbers of educated whites are fleeing the country because they have trouble getting jobs in the current climate. Nearly everyone we talk to has family living overseas. Secondly, lots of jobs are now filled by people who are under-qualified, with enormous consequences to how well things run.
For all the problems though, South Africa would be unrecognizable to somebody who lived here under the apartheid days. Racial mixing is unusual on a close friendship level, but most white people now work with black people, live near at least some black neighbors, and have at least some black children in their schools. There is also a palpable sense that the blacks are in charge and that, for better or for worse, it is them who will determine the fate of South Africa.
Ending Apartheid was the easy step for South Africa compared to what will come ahead. Two hundred years ago power was found only at the point of a spear. Even today tribal hatreds run deep and people here don't see themselves as black or white, they see themselves as Zulu or Xhosa. The problem is that democratic governments cannot function properly in such an environment. As long as people identify more strongly with their tribe than with their neighbors then power in politics lies in appealing to old tribal hatreds. Canadian politics actually suffers a version of this problem; our federal politics is hamstrung by the presence of a separatist party chosen unfailingly by our French-speaking tribe.
For South Africa to flourish people must put aside their tribal hatreds and choose a government based on its ability to rule. Mandela recognized this. Unfortunately the current ANC government has recognized that as long as the tribal divisions exist there will be no threat to them. There are few governments that have the integrity to pursue policies that would result in them eventually losing power. The flame of democracy in South Africa has nearly burned out.