Nelson Mandela's release from prison 20 years ago on Thursday ushered in South Africa's democracy, but an intractable social divide has dimmed the sparkle of the nation's "rainbow miracle".

Mr Mandela's African National Congress steered the country from the brink of civil war to prospering democracy, in a transformation that will be showcased during the football World Cup this year.

But two decades after Mr Mandela walked free, hope and joy at South Africa's emergence from white-minority rule have given way to scrutiny and cynicism as the government has struggled to meet the enormous expectations of the public, especially the poor, analysts say.

"There was a huge hope that a new dawn was going to come. That sense of great optimism and hope has faded enormously," said Moeletsi Mbeki of the South African Institute of International Affairs.

"People are asking themselves: What exactly is the ANC doing in South Africa besides buying themselves big cars and paying themselves huge salaries as ministers," Mr Mbeki said.

President Jacob Zuma is using the anniversary on Thursday to give his state of the nation address, which is expected to tap into the optimism of two decades ago while giving a frank assessment of the worries of many South Africans - shoddy schools, enduring poverty and rampant crime.

In a nod to Mr Mandela's legacy, Mr Zuma's address is expected to call for unity and reconciliation. But South Africans will be looking for fewer promises and more delivery, said Susan Booysen of the University of the Witwatersrand.

"The expectations are very, very high," she told remarked, adding ANC's victory in last year's elections came on promises to battle poverty and improve public services.

"I think the ANC realises that this is not an unconditional reprieve that they received and they increasingly have to work for future voter support. The emphasis and the eyes will be on practicalities."

Since the ANC won the first all-race elections 16 years ago, South Africa's sustained economic growth has fostered a growing black middle class, with dramatically expanded access to housing, electricity and sanitation for the poor.

But South Africa also now has the world's biggest divide between rich and poor, according to a study last year.

Unemployment remains mired around 30 per cent. An estimated 5.7 million of South Africa's 48 million people have HIV. Schools are sharply split between posh suburban campuses and dilapidated village facilities. Crime is endemic, with an average 50 killings a day.

"If we look at inequality, unemployment and underdevelopment - the three curses in South Africa - then contemporary South Africa is really a contradiction in terms," said Ms Booysen.

Anger in poor black areas exploded into violent protests last year. Mr Zuma has repeatedly promised to improve the government's performance.

"The challenges for Mr Zuma going ahead are tremendous," said Frans Cronje of the South African Institute of Race Relations.

"The tensions are so great and the anger within poor black communities is growing so rapidly and the performance of the ruling party is increasingly so disappointing."

"The things that the ANC was meant to get wrong - how to run a modern economy - it got very right. The things that the ANC was expected to get right, like living conditions, education and crime, are a mess." Mr Zuma's speech will aim to resonate with South Africans' daily experiences, hoping to placate public frustrations by admitting the government's failures, said Mr Cronje.

"All of that will come to nothing if they cannot fix the basic things that are wrong like the hospitals, the schools and the police stations," he said.

"Some of the shine is fading. I think certainly the concept of the miracle rainbow nation is largely gone, except in the eyes of the naïve international observers."

Mr Mandela's family plans to hold an event on Thursday at the Victor Verster prison from which he walked free, but it was not clear if Mr Mandela, increasingly frail at age 91, would attend that or any other event.

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