As we celebrate 18 years of freedom, it may be tempting to focus on the messiness of our current politics – thereby missing fundamental social changes that have taken place.
The changes involve small but important things that are easy to take for granted. Yet it is the very little things that, in the end, tell a profound story about the evolution of our society.
The removal of racial barriers has seen a growing number of the black middle class migrate from the township to the suburb.
Suddenly Mr Van Tonder – a middle-aged Afrikaner – woke up to a new black neighbour, Mr Mkhize.
As you can imagine, it was very difficult for Mr Van Tonder to wave and say “good morning” to Mr Mkhize.
The arrival of blacks in the suburb triggered a fundamental social reconfiguration – partly negative and at the same time very positive.
Some wealthier whites began to abandon their traditional stand-alone houses, fleeing into the new phenomenon of high-security-wall residential estates.
The assumption was that blacks would have no money to buy or rent property in the new, highly priced estates.
Little did the “fleeing” whites imagine the financial impact of black economic empowerment and affirmative action.
Today there is no single golf estate without black owners.
Even as they enjoyed their new mansions in the suburbs, the black arrivalists brought with them deep-rooted suspicion of whites.
They wondered if they would ever share a sincere joke with Mr Van Tonder.
One morning, when Mr Mkhize went to drop off his son (Jabulani), he met Mr Van Tonder also dropping off his son (Piet) at the same school.
Mkhize and Van Tonder did greet – perfunctorily – but they were both tense and suspicious.
After school, Piet told his father about a new friend he met at school. It was Jabulani, the black boy from next door. Mr Van Tonder tried very hard to dissuade young Piet from his friendship with Jabulani.
It did not work. From time to time, Piet sneaked out to visit Jabulani next door.
A knock on the door. Peeping through the window, Mr Mkhize hesitated. It was the little white boy from next door, Piet.
One day, Mr Van Tonder returned from work very distressed. He rushed to his bar, seeking relief from brandy. Why? His employer had announced he would henceforth work under a young black woman as his new boss.
Indeed, most black and white members of the middle class will be familiar with this scenario.
Many of us are aware of the tensions we have experienced in the social laboratory of the new South Africa.
Many blacks are familiar with the reluctance of some white waitresses to serve them at a restaurant.
And many whites recall instances where they felt impelled to reserve their honest opinions about blacks for fear of being labelled racist.
All these are not negative things. They are necessary characteristics of a changing social reality.
Who said the birth of a new life was painless?
Before the social reordering that began to unfold in 1994, whites and blacks lived inside artificially constructed social barriers.
It is true that there are still many suburbs that are predominantly white and that the fingerprints of apartheid spatial planning are still visible in our cities.
It is equally true that social spaces between whites and blacks – especially within the middle class – now interlace much more than before 1994.
Unlike Mr Van Tonder – who thought of brandy as a source of relief – it is no longer considered taboo by most professional whites to have a black boss.
To white neighbours, the phenomenon of a super-rich black person is no longer as shocking as it used to be in the early days of democracy.
In the minds of many among the black middle class, notions of white superiority have diminished.
In any case, blacks who went to university after 1994 studied and lived with white students – except in historically black universities.
Interracial sexual relations have also lost their power to shock. This does not mean attitudes in society have been transformed completely. Cultural stereotypes do exist.
While a great deal remains to be done to build a truly non-racial society, elements of such a society are now visible in South African suburbia.
Beyond the suburb, however, a daunting challenge remains.
Whole masses of underclass blacks in rural areas and townships still live in the past.
While the class divide has narrowed between well-off whites and blacks, who live side by side in the suburb, the black underclass face a dual social distance.
The first distance is between them and whites in general. And the second is between the black underclass and their middle-class brothers and sisters.
The first social distance – between the black underclass and whites – is easy for blacks to accept, since it has deep historic roots.
Apartheid built a social wall around poor whites to prevent intercourse between blacks and poor whites.
The rich in white society viewed their poor kith and kin as an embarrassment that must not be seen by blacks.
The political system of the day thus designated special sections in white suburbs for occupation by the poor. All sorts of social support was provided by the racist state.
For this reason, poor blacks still don’t feel deserted by whites, even as members of the black underclass wouldn’t mind the comfort of the suburb – if economic conditions permitted.
The historical mistrust between poor blacks and whites still exists. Subliminal attitudes that poor blacks are dangerous are still there.
Few white South Africans feel fearless about visiting a township.
It is as if the township is a slaughterhouse.
Politically, this is the reality that complicates relations between predominantly white political parties and black voters in poor areas.
It might take ages before sincere chemistry is established between white parties and black voters.
The second distance facing the black underclass is between them and their black middle-class brothers and sisters.
While blacks generally prefer to downplay this reality, a class gap among them has widened since 1994.
Historically, poor and rich blacks were lumped together in the township, or in rural areas.
While shopkeepers, teachers and nurses were conspicuously above peasants and the destitute, they lived in the same black communities.
Over the past 18 years, a silent exodus of the black middle class into historically white suburbs has taken place.
While going to university, a poor black student would remain embedded in the township. As soon as students find a well-paying job, they migrate to the suburbs.
Essentially, education has come to represent an escape route for young blacks from the townships. Even musicians or soccer stars do not want to live there. At best they will go and flaunt their flashy cars at weekends.
The philandering ones go there to find girlfriends.
This has complicated relations between the black underclass and their well-off brothers and sisters – not so much among blood relatives.
A more complicated philosophical question for the black middle class is the meaning of success. Should we read their stampede into the suburb as a reflection of what they understand by success?
This is a complicated question indeed, since members of the black middle class try hard to retain sentimental links with their rural origins and township connections.
The interaction of the black underclass and middle class in the economy is generally characterised by subtle tensions.
The black underclass find it demeaning to serve their brothers and sisters as waitresses in suburban restaurants, or to clean their houses and babysit their children.
In Gauteng, members of the black middle class have waged a silent strike against employing their own South African brothers and sisters.
Accusations and generalisations about laziness and bad attitudes abound.
If South Africa had good sociologists, studies would by now have confirmed what most of us have already observed, that black South Africans in the suburbs prefer to hire – or to be served by – Zimbabwean migrants than by their own nationals.
What, then, is the story of South African society since 1994?
It is one of greater proximity between whites and the black middle class, and the reality of a dual distance confronting the black underclass.
The learned among us, therefore, have a mammoth task: never to lose the ability to descend from the roofs of high politics to make sense of little things in society.
Maybe that would be a better way to celebrate freedom.
n Mashele is chief executive of The Forum for Public Dialogue, and teaches politics at the University of Pretoria. He is also a member of the Midrand Group, and author of The death of our society (available at Exclusive Books).