Cape Town - President Jacob Zuma sees South Africa as an inspiration to people in other parts of the world "who are seeking the resolution of serious conflicts."
In reviewing the nation's progress over the 20 years since its first free elections, Zuma said that apartheid had brought South Africa to the "brink of disaster", from which the rainbow nation had managed to pull back.
The ceremonies marking Nelson Mandela's death in December showed how much the world admires the course South Africa has taken, he noted.
Zuma likes to see himself in the role of "father of the nation", but there are many who fear that he and the African National Congress that has ruled the country these two decades are betraying Mandela's ideals.
Helen Zille, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, said in March: "Since President Zuma's election, much of the progress we could be most proud of in early years has begun to be reversed."
Hardly anyone disputes that South Africa is a democratic country under the rule of law, despite violence and widespread corruption.
Its Constitution is seen as one of the most modern in the world. It is also a beacon of industrialisation on the continent, a rare centre of competitive industry and functioning financial institutions - and responsible for a quarter of Africa's economic output.
But the problems are vast and the dangers growing. Reconciliation between blacks and whites was part of Mandela's vision and "racial reconciliation" is a constant theme among South Africans.
On being inaugurated as president, Mandela envisaged a society "in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world".
South Africa is still a long way from that.
Even a cursory look at everyday life in government offices, companies, universities, football stadiums or cafes suggests that Mandela's dream has been realised.
There are no exclusively white neighbourhoods any more, and the upmarket suburbs in Johannesburg and Durban are home to the wealthy of all colours.
But society is still largely defined by skin colour.
Opinion surveys show that most people have scarcely any contact with those from other population groups.
The divisions remain in place at the socio-economic level.
Most blacks are still poor, even though a new black elite has been created since 1994 along with a growing middle class, and there have been some inroads into reducing poverty with 16 million people receiving assistance.
But despite 3.3 million new houses for the poor, millions continue to live in ramshackle huts in sprawling slums, even if they now often have running water and electricity.
"South Africa has one of the world's highest unemployment rates, high poverty levels, endemic inequality and a dual economy characterized by an informal low-end economy existing alongside a developed, high-end economy," the World Bank said in a report last year.
The official jobless rate stands at 25%, although economists put it at closer to 40, with youth unemployment reaching 60%.
Despite large state investment, schooling is still seen as being of poor quality and inefficient. Companies are desperate for qualified staff. "Our pupils can barely read and write," says educationist Graeme Bloch.
ANC governments since 1994 have relied on the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programme to combat inequality.
This imposes an obligation on companies and government bodies to employ more black people at higher levels.
The results are unimpressive. Rhoda Kadalie, executive director of the Impumelelo Social Innovations Centre, says: "We find incompetent people in the highest echelons of the government. They are there because they are politically connected."
Putting incapable people into important positions is an infringement of human rights, in the view of Kadalie.
Andrew Chirwa, head of the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), says: "In fact in 1994 we managed to replace white capitalists with black ones."
The last white president, FW de Klerk, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela in 1993, is among those who believe that BEE "has brought nothing to the large majority of the truly deprived".
The ANC's reputation is suffering because of corruption and a series of scandals and evidence of bad decisions.
But the party appears invincible ahead of elections set for 7 May on the basis of its opposition to apartheid for decades and Mandela's legacy.
"What should concern South Africans most about the occasion of our 20th anniversary as a democratic nation is the fact that our ruling elite has constructed a fictional reality of achievement and glory around the event for themselves," wrote Fazila Farouk, director of the Sacsis non-profit news agency.
Farouk charged that the elite were not interested in the "uncomfortable truths" of deprivation.
"Civilised societies protect their women and their children," she wrote. But with each passing year of South Africa's democracy, the violence against our most vulnerable has gotten worse."
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