South Africa News & Current Events

Updated September 9, 2022 | Infoplease Staff
Apartheid is Abolished; Mandela Becomes President


In 1991, a multiracial forum led by de Klerk and Mandela, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), began working on a new constitution. In 1993, an interim constitution was passed, which dismantled apartheid and provided for a multiracial democracy with majority rule. The peaceful transition of South Africa from one of the world's most repressive societies into a democracy is one of the 20th century's most remarkable success stories. Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

The 1994 election, the country's first multiracial one, resulted in a massive victory for Mandela and his ANC. The new government included six ministers from the National Party and three from the Inkatha Freedom Party. A new national constitution was approved and adopted in May 1996.

In 1997 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Desmond Tutu, began hearings regarding human rights violations between 1960 and 1993. The commission promised amnesty to those who confessed their crimes under the apartheid system. In 1998, F. W. de Klerk, P.W. Botha, and leaders of the ANC appeared before the commission, and the nation continued to grapple with its enlightened but often painful and divisive process of national recovery.


Mbeki Takes Over From Mandela


Nelson Mandela, whose term as president cemented his reputation as one of the world's most farsighted and magnanimous statesmen, retired in 1999. On June 2, 1999, Thabo Mbeki, the pragmatic deputy president and leader of the ANC, was elected president in a landslide, having already assumed many of Mandela's governing responsibilities.

In his first term, Mbeki wrestled with a slumping economy and a skyrocketing crime rate. South Africa, the country with the highest number of HIV-positive people in the world (6.5 million in 2005), has been hampered in fighting the epidemic by its president's highly controversial views. Mbeki has denied the link between HIV and AIDS and claimed that the West has exaggerated the epidemic to boost drug profits. The international community as well as most South African leaders, including Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, have condemned Mbeki's stance. In 2006, 60 international scientists called the government's policies “disastrous and pseudo-scientific.”

As expected, on April 15, 2004, the African National Congress won South Africa's general election in a landslide, taking about 70% of the vote, and Thabo Mbeki was sworn in for a second term.

In Dec. 2007, African National Committee delegates chose Jacob Zuma as their leader, ousting Mbeki, who had been in control of the party for the last ten years. Zuma was acquitted of rape charges in 2006. In late December, prosecutors reopened corruption charges against Zuma and ordered him to face trial for "various counts of racketeering, money laundering, corruption, and fraud." He was accused of accepting more than $440,000 in bribes in exchange for helping a friend, Schabir Shaik, secure $5 billion in an arms deal and other government contracts. Zuma's lawyers accused Mbeki of trying to sabotage Zuma's political career. A High Court judge dismissed the corruption charges against Zuma in September 2008, saying the government mishandled the prosecution. The judge also criticized President Mbeki for attempting to influence the prosecution of Zuma.


Motlanthe Serves as "Interim" President; Opposition to the ANC Grows


Under pressure from leaders the African National Congress (ANC), Mbeki announced he would step down just days after Zuma was cleared. While party leader's cited Mbeki's alleged interference in the corruption case against Zuma, Mbeki's resignation culminated several years of bitter infighting between Zuma and Mbeki, which led to discord in the ANC. On Sep. 25, Parliament elected Kgalema Motlanthe, a labor leader who was imprisoned during apartheid, as president. Zuma must be a member of Parliament before he can be elected president. Parliamentary elections are expected in early 2009.

On his first day as president, Motlanthe acted to move beyond Mbeki's resistance to using modern and effective methods, such as antirretroviral medicines, to tackle its AIDS crisis by replacing South Africa's health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who has suggested that garlic, lemon juice, and beetroot could cure AIDS, with Barbara Hogan. "The era of denialism is over," she said. More than 5.7 million South Africans are HIV-positive, the highest number of any country in the world.

In November, about 6,400 dissident members of the ANC held a convention in Johannesburg and decided to form a new party that will challenge the leadership of the ANC. The delegates, many of whom supported former president Mbeki, expressed dissatisfaction with the leadership of the party, calling it corrupt, authoritarian, and "rotting." In December, the new party, the Congress of the People (COPE), selected former defense minister Mosiuoa Lekota as its president.


Zuma Assumes the Presidency


South African's Supreme Court reinstated corruption charges against Zuma in January 2009, saying that a lower court had "overstepped" its authority in dismissing the charges. However, the country's prosecuting authority dropped all charges against Zuma in April, about two weeks before national elections, citing “intolerable abuse” by investigators who were loyal to former president Mbeki.

In April's general election, the ruling party, the African National Congress, won overwhelming support, taking 65.9% of the vote, just shy of a two-thirds majority, which is required to change the constitution. Parliament elected Zuma president in May.

In Dec. 2012, Zuma was again elected leader of the African National Congress, which stands him in good stead for the 2014 presidential elections. Many considered this a significant victory for Jacob Zuma, achieved in spite of criticism for his goverment's handling of the wage protests in Marikana in which 34 people were brutally killed by police.


Mandela Dies


Olympic runner and national hero Oscar Pistorius was arrested in February 2013 and charged with the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. She was found dead in his apartment. Pistorius denied he killed her and was released on bail. His trial began in April 2014. He testified that he shot Steenkamp by mistake, believing she was an intruder in the bathroom. He was found guilty of of culpable homicide, which is similar to manslaughter, in September 2014 and sentenced to five years in jail.

On Dec. 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela died at age 95. He had been in ill health for several months after battling a lung infection. South Africans and people all over the world mourned his death but at the same time celebrated his remarkable life.


ANC Prevails in 2014 Elections; Army Called in to Quell Anti-Immigrant Violence


The ANC took 62.2% of the vote in May 2014 elections, handing Zuma a second term as president. The opposition Democratic Alliance placed second, 22.2%. Despite its landslide victory, the ANC has seen its popularity diminish in recent years due to allegations of corruption, growing income inequality, and disenchantment with Zuma.

South Africa was hit by a spate of attacks on immigrants in March and April 2015. Several people were killed in the violence. Most of the victims were Africans from nearby countries who run small businesses. As South Africa's economy has suffered, anti-immigrant sentiment has increased. The surge in violence followed comments by the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, who demanded that the immigrants leave and referred to them as "lice" and "ants." The South African troops were deployed to end the violence.

In Feb. 2018, after lengthy challenges from within his party and from outside, Zuma was forced to resign or face a vote of no confidence. The president delivered his resignation on live broadcast, while also remarking that the ANC was making a mistake in targeting him. On Feb. 15, the new president Cyril Ramaphosa (Zuma's Deputy President and a famous opponent of the apartheid regime in the 90's) was sworn into office.

See also Encyclopedia: South Africa .

U.S. State Dept. Country Notes: South Africa

Statistics South Africa .