Cyril Ramaphosa, a young black activist, was asked in 1982 to start a labour organization 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 16 August, 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.
On page two... People in SA are slowly getting fed up