Among the names is an analyst who argued South Africa is on the brink of catastrophic collapse, a polarising figure within the ANC, a politician who argued for a radical overhaul of the electoral system, a Paralympian not currently on trial for murder, a billionaire businessman, a number of anti-apartheid activists, and the actor who made the phrase "I'm too old for this shit" famous.
A total of 54 individuals will receive national orders from President Jacob Zuma on April 27 in a ceremony likely to attract more than its usual share of attention as a key part of the celebrations of 20 years of democracy. But with a list long and diverse enough for just about anyone to find a role-model or a person they respect on it, the 2014 orders look set to avoid controversy, even though they will be conferred less than two weeks before a close-fought election.
The presidency announced the list of recipients on Wednesday, and confirmed the award ceremony would be themed "South Africa: A better place to live in", a key slogan adopted by Zuma's office in other contexts, including a 20-year review of South Africa.
Despite the similarity between that theme and ANC election messaging, the list of recipients shows remarkably few signs that looming polls were a factor in the selection of individuals – or that optimism was a criterion.
Among those due to receive the Order of the Baobab (for contributions to community service, the economy, and science) are Alex Boraine, author of What's Gone Wrong? On the brink of a failed state and Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, who issued dire warnings on the need for a constituency-based Parliament during a turbulent relationship with Thabo Mbeki.
Some of those to be honoured will cause mild to moderate discomfort for parts of the ANC alliance: Raymond Ackerman, the billionaire Pick n Pay boss will be awarded the Order of the Baobab for "socially responsible retail" but is also the face of capitalism. United Democratic Front stalwart Popo Molefe is still a divisive figure in the North West province, even though he vacated the office of premier a decade ago; he is to receive the Order of Luthuli, which awards contributions to peace, democracy and nation-building.
Awards of the Order of Ikhamanga (for art, culture, and sport) were the most controversial in 2013, when swimmer Cameron van der Burgh was overlooked while fellow swimmer Chad le Clos was recognised. This year it is Van der Burgh’s turn, and he will share the stage with runner Caster Semenya, who will be honoured in part for "her peformance against all odds", an oblique reference to humiliating questions about her gender class.
Also on the list are two Paralympians: tennis player Lucas Sithole and sprinter Fanie van der Merwe. Their presence may or may not trigger references to Oscar Pistorius, who received the same order in 2006 and whose trial for the killing of Reeva Steenkamp will continue shortly after the awards.
Pistorius received the order in bronze, while both Sithole and Van der Merwe will receive it in silver.
Foreigners due to be recognised with the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo range from globally known musician Quincy Jones and actor Danny Glover, both for their anti-apartheid work, to the largely unknown Ruth Neto, of the Organisation of Angolan Women.
The full list of 2014 national order recipients
Order of Mendi (bravery)
Order of Ikhamanga (art, culture, sport): Jomo Sono, Lucas Sithole, Sandra Prinsloo, Victor Ntoni, Zakes Mda, Fanie van der Merwe, Lindiwe Mabuza, Rashid Lombard, Cameron van der Burgh, Caster Semenya
Order of the Boabab (community, economy, science): Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert, Dawid Kruiper, Katrina Esau, Alex Boraine, Chris Ball, Raymond Ackerman, Abraham September, Tshepo Khumbane
Order of Luthuli (democracy, peace, human rights): Florence Matomela, Sir Bob Hepple, Abdullah Haron, Ruth First, David Bopape, Frances Baard, Zola Skweyiya, Jeanette Schoon, Agnes Msimang, Zephania Mothopeng, Popo Molefe, Father Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, Wolfie Kodesh, Abdulhay Jassat, Mittah Seperepere
Order of Mapungubwe (exceptional achievement): William Soga, Barry Schoub, Hendrik Schaaf, Ismail Mohamed, Namrita Lall
Order of the Companions of OR Tambo (foreign nationals): Alfre Woodard, Ruth Neto, Alexander Moumbaris, Lord Neil Kinnock, Thomas Karis, Quincy Jones, Danny Glover, Jerry Dammers, Jean Cissé, Gwendolen Carter, Lord Richard Attenborough