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As World Cup 2010 kicks off, where South Africa stands 16 years after apartheid

South Africa is a model of racial reconciliation following decades of apartheid, with a burgeoning black middle class. But high crime, unequal wealth, and social tensions persist as the nation hosts World Cup 2010.

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To gauge just how far the country has come, we asked two middle-class families – one white, one black – to tell of their own experiences of the past decade and a half, and their expectations for the future. Their sentiments are strikingly similar, despite differences in skin color and personal histories.

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Both families give their government credit for what they have achieved, and both share disappointment about many of the same areas where they say the government has failed. Yet, both families continue to bank their future on the hope that South Africa will somehow set things right.

The Thabangs: Part of the rising but restless black middle class

When liberation came, with the election of Mandela's government on April 27, 1994, Israel Thabang was a 22-year-old college student and former ANC activist. As a black South African and member of the African National Congress, he had organized protests against the apartheid government. Liberation brought both an affirmation of his past efforts and euphoria.

"It was quite an exciting time; we couldn't believe what was happening," says Mr. Thabang, relaxing with his children on the leather couch of his comfortable townhouse apartment in Soweto. "We walked the whole of Joburg for the whole night."

Sixteen years later, Thabang can also recall the keen anxiety that many ANC supporters felt, that their country could still tumble into civil war. "The Inkatha Freedom Party was there, fighting our own people in the ANC, and you had the white Afrikaner party on the other side, threatening to separate, so no one was sure that democracy was really coming. When you look at other African countries, you worried that we might not reach our goal."

He smiles. "But miracles happened."

The South Africa that Thabang grew up in was a country torn apart by racist laws and increasingly violent protests. Raised on a farm in Limpopo, South Africa's poorest province, Thabang came to Johannesburg in the early 1990s to attend college. Mandela had been released from prison and, in 1994, he became South Africa's first black president.

The country Mandela took over functioned well when it was serving the 12 percent of the population that was white, but now it had to expand those services – electricity and education, sanitation and drinking water, health care and police protection and roads – to the black majority who made up the 80 percent who had been neglected at best.

Townships like Soweto were not only no-go zones for whites in 1994, but were often dangerous even for black residents. Today, Soweto is a neat-and-tidy black-majority suburb with better schools, supermarkets, and shopping malls, and more important, electricity, paved roads, and regular police patrols whose job is to go after criminals rather than political activists.

Thabang and his family live in a gated community of townhouses, one of the many symbols of how far this former war zone has come.

As members of a growing black middle class, the Thabangs are a living achievement of the ANC, something never contemplated by the apartheid government. But as middle-class people often are, the Thabangs are also aware of their own government's failings. With Israel earning a good salary as a paramedic for a private ambulance company and his wife, Kate, working as an environmental health officer with the local government, the couple credit their success to hard work, not handouts.

"Not everyone is happy in this country, but we're getting there," Thabang says, as his children, 10-year-old Alicia, 9-year-old Thabo, and 3-year-old Katlego, watch an afternoon cartoon on a large flat-screen television. "When I drive through Soweto, and I see young girls and boys going to school, I know it's not a privilege, it's a necessity. These days, if you don't go to school, you starve."