This article adopts a ‘state-in-society’ approach in order to take account of the impact of the transition to democracy in South Africa on social groups and their engagement with the state. The article suggests that democratic consolidation involves not only building a new state but also new interfaces between state and society. We use the term ‘fragile stability’ to characterise the contradictory nature of South Africa’s transition a decade after apartheid: society is stable in that the non-racial regime is fully accepted as legitimate, but the immense social problems which were apartheid’s legacy remain a threat to social order. The article shows how state authority and capacity have been regenerated from a position of severe weakness at the time of the transition, to a situation today where it has substantial capabilities in exercising basic functions such as policing, border control and taxation. However, we argue that in many other social arenas, both stability and fragility have increased. Drawing on other articles in this special issue, we discuss the different patterns in which the contradictory combination of stability and fragility has evolved. The macroeconomic situation has been both stabilising and destabilising, but different policies have been responsible for each. We suggest that single-party dominance of the political arena, the continued salience of race relations, black economic empowerment, militarism and corruption are arenas where the same social or political processes have both promoted stability and added to the potential for destabilisation. In gender relations, HIV/AIDS and land reform, stabilisation has been limited, as linkages between state and society have not been successfully established. We conclude that despite its tenuous nature, fragile stability nonetheless represents an ‘equilibrium’ that is likely to persist in the short- to medium-term, because the social forces and political organisations needed to move the society to a different position either crisis or thoroughgoing consolidation have not yet emerged.