BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa — When Freddy Kenny started his business selling vegetables out of a battered pickup truck in the 1970s, a siren used to sound over this city, his hometown, every night at 9, signaling to him and every other black person that they must leave the city limits immediately or face arrest.
These days, the only thing looming is a 20-foot statue of Nelson Mandela, the man who led South Africa out of apartheid and into an era of democracy, his fist raised in a black power salute. Kenny, now a supermarket magnate, donated the bronze statue of South Africa’s first black president and had it erected atop the city’s highest point, Naval Hill.
“Madiba always watched over us when he lived,” he said Saturday, referring to the late Mandela by his clan name. “Now he will watch over us for eternity.”
Kenny’s comfortable new life, with the perks of privilege of his white counterparts, is a testament to the commitment that Mandela, who died Thursday, placed on making racial reconciliation the centerpiece of his presidency.
He led a party that fought an armed insurgency against the apartheid government, yet when he emerged from prison he preached forgiveness and harmony. Mandela negotiated a peaceful end to white rule, giving birth to the Rainbow Nation.
But racial equality at the ballot box has proved much easier to achieve than social and economic equality. Although Kenny, a regular at the bar of the Schoeman Park Golf Club, a formerly all-white watering hole, has caught up with and surpassed many white South Africans, he is an exception to a rule of lopsided opportunity and advancement that remains one of the most daunting challenges facing the nation.
Since the abolition of apartheid, the government has built more than 2 million homes and brought electricity to millions of households.
The average annual incomes of black-led households almost tripled from 2001 to 2011, according to census figures released late last year, and a growing percentage of the adult black population has gone to high school, with an increasing sliver going to college.
But black South Africans are still very far behind whites, and by some measures falling further back. In 2001, white-led households typically earned close to $17,000 more than their black counterparts, at current exchange rates.
By 2011, that disparity had grown to nearly $30,000. And although the nation has made headway in reducing the number of black people with no education or only a few years of primary school, very few whites have that barrier to overcome; to the contrary, they have advanced to college and beyond at higher rates since apartheid ended.
The nation remains deeply divided in social spheres as well. According to the SA Reconciliation Barometer, a survey of racial and social attitudes, less than 40 percent of South Africans socialize with people of another race. Just 22 percent of white South Africans and a fifth of black South Africans live in racially integrated neighborhoods. Schools remain heavily segregated.
Mamello Tlakeli, 27, a recently unemployed waitress who now volunteers at a charity, said, whites in South Africa continued to prosper as they did during apartheid, but blacks remained in the rear.
“There is a huge gap between black and white,” she said. “The Rainbow Nation is a dream, not a reality.”