Johannesburg - Cyril Ramaphosa, a young black activist, was asked in 1982 to start a labour organisation for mining workers to challenge one of the most important sectors of the country's economy, then dominated by the white minority.
Ramaphosa not only founded the National Union of Mineworkers, currently one of the most powerful unions in the country, but also became the lead African National Congress (ANC) negotiator in the talks that ended Apartheid in 1994 and gave blacks the franchise.
But his negotiating skills were missing in August, when thousands of workers at the Lonmin platinum mine at Marikana went on a wildcat strike, which led to the deaths of 44 people.
Police shot 34 of them dead on August 16, in what is being seen as one of the worst instances of violence in the country since the end of Apartheid.
Ramaphosa is a board member of Lonmin, having gone full circle from fighting for workers' rights to owning key shares in a mining firm.
His story, for South Africans, is an exception to the rule that highlights the slow pace of change. While some blacks have been lifted out of poverty and have gained positions of power since 1994, deep poverty and unemployment is the more common reality.
“Too many people in South Africa are not skilled. Our education system here is in crisis. People are not learning the skills they need for work,” says Gareth Newham, the head of the Crime and Justice Programme at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria.
Unemployment hovers at around 25 per cent, according to official figures. The government sponsored affirmative action programme - Black Economic Empowerment - has not done its job.
Though it created a small black middle class, the programme has notably enriched a small, politically connected elite, which is often accused of being corrupt.
Newham believes that because the ruling ANC is not held accountable, the country regularly finds itself dealing with urgent situations. The party is the dominant political power in the country, garnering about two-thirds of the vote in national elections.
“As long as there is no threat to the people in power in the ANC, and people are not held accountable for their ability to solve problems, then we will always be in a crisis management system,” says Newham.
People in South Africa are slowly getting fed up with the pace of economic change - having gotten the vote in 1994, they now want to see a real positive impact on their day-to-day lives.
But service delivery protests are on the rise. Last year, the number of such protests against government failings to deliver basic services like water, electricity, housing and education reached an all time high.
Some areas of the country simply offer no hope to residents. Many of the workers at the Lonmin mine in the North-West province, originally came from the Eastern Cape, where Nelson Mandela was born.
“There are no jobs in the Eastern Cape, there is nothing,” said Primrose, a woman in her fifties who sells clothes outside the Lonmin mine.
She moved to Marikana in 1995, shortly after the Apartheid-era restrictions on freedom of movement for blacks were lifted.
Analysts believe that the striking Lonmin miners were joined by hundreds of unemployed people from nearby informal settlements - or shantytowns - who turned a labour dispute into a complaint against the system: the mines, the unions and the government.
“As long as people feel excluded, problems will continue,” says the ISS' Newham.
The shantytowns around the mine are often no-go areas for police, indicating a lack of trust in the authorities by the growing class of working poor in South Africa.
“The violence by workers is a rejection of inequality,” says one sector analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Moreover, the political leaders who should have stepped up and help resolve disputes before violence erupted have largely shirked their responsibility.
Corruption is a red thread running through the debates about where the country is heading. Many top officials in the police, for example, have been fired for graft and other charges, including the past two police chiefs.
Richard Mdluli, the former head of crime intelligence at the police, is facing allegations of fraud and murder. His unit would have been responsible for gathering inside information from the scene of the Lonmin strike.
But with crime intelligence in total disarray, observers say they are not surprised the police officers facing the angry workers had no clue how to handle the situation, contributing to the brute use of live ammunition that left dozens dead and shocked the nation. - Sapa-dpa