In 2014, South Africa will celebrate 20 years of democracy since the ending of Apartheid. Per-Anders Pettersson arrived in South Africa 20 years ago to cover the country’s first democratic elections. The election was of immense significance: from the ashes of a repressive, segregated and racist state a multi-racial nation miraculously emerged. The president, the late Nelson Mandela, was to become the country's first black president; he had been free for four years and had toured the world like a rock star. The country was shaping up to be one of the greatest success stories of the African continent. 

Over the past two decades, Pettersson has explored the country, the ‘Rainbow Nation’, questioning the complex realities of daily life. It turns out that democracy brought both rewards and new struggles: a soaring violent crime rate, disease, poverty and massive unemployment. Still, the country's policies reaped astonishing wealth for a new black elite, and saw the rapid emergence of a black middle class. The energy with which these so-called ‘black diamonds’ embraced capitalism was one of the most striking features of the transition. Their success occasioned a frenzied aspirational spirit amongst the poorer urban classes. As wealth began concentrating in a few hands, the country's initial burst of aspiration was smothered by a second decade of greed and disillusionment. 

Pettersson tries to represent this complex country as broadly as he can. He photographs whites-only Afrikaans communities, the bourgeois life of the 'black diamonds', poor, urban life in the country's endless 'townships', and even scenes from tradition-bound Xhosa tribespeople. The results document how the country has changed: self-isolated Afrikaaners now live hard-scrabble lives on the fringes of society. Meanwhile, aspiring blacks sip from martini glasses at the club while others, not so far away, sip their dinners out of tin cans. There are moments of integration, but these stand out because of their rarity rather than their prominence.

At times, the images can't help but feel dated — but that's because they are. Pettersson documented this country for 20 years and the series brings together images from that entire period. Someone could go to South Africa tomorrow, stay for a month, and create a series documenting the persistent divisions in South African society. Pettersson's accomplishment is tracking the full span of South Africa's democratic period and showing the era's faults, shortcomings, and hard-won triumphs.

—Alexander Strecker

Rainbow Transit by Per-Anders Pettersson
Publisher: Dewi Lewis Publishing
Hardcover: 160 pages