Even if you have never visited any other sub-Saharan African country, you will realise that South Africa is different. It's not just the excellent road network, the superbly maintained game reserves and the number of shopping malls as swanky as any in the developed world. It's the complex ethnic make-up of the place — Africa, Europe, Asia and the Far East, all represented within its borders. But not all is well in the rainbow nation.

While the topic of crime haunts dinner-table conversations, race permeates most aspects of daily life. And as First World glamour stands in stark juxtaposition to Third World squalor, the Aids pandemic goes through the roof.

Ironically though, this has done little to dent the optimism that colours what most South Africans feel about the future of their country.

On the face of it, Scott Von Hoesslin looks like a man who has it all. Only 24, he works as a pilot for a South African charter firm and is based in Pakistan.

His job earns him a "pretty decent" salary besides perks like a fully paid vacation every other month. But he is not entirely satisfied.

"Personally, I would like nothing better than to live and work in South Africa. But opportunities are few for young white professionals. The government's Black Empowerment Programme is almost like discrimination in the reverse. I understand they have to do something for the historically disadvantaged black community, but not at our cost, as my generation was not responsible for the crimes of the past."

Scott says he believes in the new South Africa and its future. "It's just that I think the policy should be the ‘best man for the job'. But if you talk too much about it, it is sometimes seen as being racist."

The legacy of apartheid is a fact of life in South Africa. No discussion about the country is complete without looking back to the past, and how it has affected the present.

Vernon Mathe, 52, a long-time member of the ruling African National Congress and works as a part-time tourist guide in Durban, has lived through the bad old days and realises only too well the importance of multi-party democracy and equal rights for all.

"Nothing can put me off South Africa. Our country has huge problems, like the HIV pandemic and the appalling crime situation. But it is a free country and for someone like me, who has gone to jail and suffered torture for anti-apartheid activities, that is what matters most."

But does he feel any resentment towards South Africa's white community? "Growing up in the apartheid days, I used to hate the whites, especially Afrikaners. But now I have no reason to. The past is past. They have lived here for generations; it's their country too. Staying together is fine as long as we are all equal."

Immigrant influx

South Africa is an economic powerhouse to which hundreds of thousands of migrants from failed and failing states in Africa are attracted each year. And Vernon has a problem with some of them.

"It's gone totally out of hand. They have made many districts in our cities no-go areas. They are in a big way responsible for the crime wave in the country. I am not against immigration. What I am against is the illegal and uncontrolled influx into our country."

Selby Mthembu, 26, loves cricket and is proud of South Africa's formidable team. But the racial divide has not spared sports too, and until recently, cricket was seen as a game for whites. That impression was perhaps formed as the team was entirely white when South Africa first appeared on the international scene in the early 1990s. But a lot has changed since then.

"As a teenager, I played for the Kwa-Zulu Natal junior team. Today, I am proud of our team. I am also proud of talented black and Indian players like Makaya Ntini and Hashim Amla," he said.

Mthembu works for Love Life Games, an organisation that works to promote sporting activities among Aids victims and thinks the problem of Aids ought to be the top priority for the country's leadership. "The scale of the scourge saddens me deeply. Hence, I do what I can to help."

Ian Beeton, 17, lives what most would describe as a privileged life. Studying in a boarding school in Pretoria, he frequently flies off to meet his parents, who run a successful business in Lusaka, Zambia.

"Lusaka is primitive when compared to South African cities. But funnily, I feel more at ease there. Crime is nothing like it is here. I just think what a wonderful country South Africa could have been without the horrific crime situation."

For his age, Beeton is remarkably mature and clear about what he wants out of life. "Many white youngsters, especially males, feel that there are not many jobs for them in South Africa. So the trend is to either emigrate or be self employed. I will soon be going to Australia to take up a course in professional diving, and get a job perhaps in an oil firm overseas.

"But in a few years, I want to come back and start a restaurant chain, with branches in and around South Africa. Nothing can keep me away from this land for long. I am very hopeful about my future here."

Hope, they say, is the last thing to die.