Mandela’s release after 27 years in apartheid-era jails, set in motion the country’s transformation to democracy which culminated in historic all-race elections in 1994 and his inauguration as the country’s first black leader.
Some critics say Mandela’s legacy has been blighted by his successor Thabo Mbeki’s sacking as president by the ruling ANC and the latest sexual scandal involving President Jacob Zuma which has damaged the party’s image.
South Africa’s change to democracy has been heralded as a miracle. Mandela’s reconciliation drive won over hardline white conservatives, previously segregated communities are integrated and most blacks and whites now treat each other with respect.
But two decades on, many black South Africans still live in grinding poverty in squalid shantytowns, official unemployment is just under 25% and analysts say actual joblessness is much higher.
“The challenges are identical. If there are three categories of things, it will be unemployment, inequality with a racial overlay and poverty. The changes between 1990 and 2010 are not profound,” said independent political analyst Nic Borain.
Crime is rife and South Africa has one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime. The country also has to deal with one of the heaviest global HIV/AIDS caseloads.
Income inequality between different race groups has increased from 1995 and the World Bank describes South Africa as a country with “extreme differences in incomes and wealth”.
At least 34% of South Africa’s estimated 50 million people live on less than $2 (€1.45) per day, according to the World Bank.
The economy under the African National Congress, which has been ruling since the end of apartheid in 1994, saw its longest spurt of growth on record until the fallout from the global financial crisis pushed it into recession at the start of 2009.
“There is currently no one to lead South Africa to this consensus. We need to hunt for the next Mandela, not the nation builder, the economic revolutionary,” Attard Montalto added.
Despite the obvious problems facing South Africa, much has changed since Mandela was released.
A strong black middle- class has emerged, a generation of schoolchildren born after 1994 — known as the “born frees” — have grown up in an multi-racial society and basic services like water and electricity have been extended to millions.
“The only black people you interacted with (prior to 1990) as a normal kind of person were servants and deeply poverty-stricken people. That is no longer the case and there is a general deracialism of wealth at least,” said political analyst Borain.
Mandela invited one of his former jailers to help mark the 20th anniversary of his release from prison at a dinner held last week.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner spent 27 years in prison under white-minority apartheid rule, mainly on the notorious Robben Island near Cape Town. His release set South Africa on the path to democracy.
Christo Brand was a Robben Island warder, but the two developed a friendship that Mandela said in his memoirs had “reinforced my belief in the essential humanity of even those who had kept me behind bars”.
Brand was among a small group invited to Mandela’s home last Wednesday for a dinner with his ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his daughter Zindzi, and leading anti-apartheid activists.
At the party Brand asked Mandela, a boxer in his youth, if he still exercised, according to the Sapa news agency.
“It’s not easy, but I do it every now and then. I do feel like I am getting old,” 91-year-old Mandela said.
Zindzi Mandela filmed the event for a documentary called Conversations About That Day, which she plans to screen for the anniversary this week.