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South Africa’s first democratic elections, 25 years on: never lose sight of what the country has achieved

Nelson Mandela and outgoing president Frederik Willem de Klerk.

April 27, 1994 is a pivotal date in the story of South Africa. It was the day on which the country held its first fully democratic elections. These swept Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) to power, starting the process of creating a more inclusive nation and ending the years of white minority rule. Given South Africa’s turbulent history, it is almost miraculous that they ever took place.

Viewed 25 years later, the photographs of millions of South Africans queueing to vote, many for the first time, remain extremely powerful. The 19.7m people – 86.9% of the voting population – put Xs on ballot slips that day to end apartheid, setting South Africa on course for an alternative future. Desmond Tutu, the renowned anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace Laureate, described it as an “an incredible experience, like falling in love”. Mandela, the freedom fighter turned president elect, asserted that “we are starting a new era of hope, reconciliation and nation building”.

Securing democracy had been far from smooth. It emerged out of a period of unprecedented political violence and a de facto civil war across the country. It was only possible in the fundamentally altered political and economic environment that followed the end of the Cold War. Even so, without the actions and commitment of countless activists and organisations, both in South Africa and abroad, the dream of a non-racial democracy could well have been blown off course.

The election that day brought about the central and crucial pillars of this new post-apartheid South Africa: the liberal and progressive constitution; ideals of human rights and reconciliation; governance structures; a range of symbols including the flag; and even national identity itself. Yet as South Africans prepare to go to the polls on May 8 to vote in the sixth national elections, all is not well. For many citizens, the transformation project has not been fast or radical enough. Enormous changes have clearly occurred, such as a rising black middle class but many of the economic and social legacies of apartheid still persist.

The reality of South Africa

The ANC’s promise in 1994 of a “better life for all” remains largely unfulfilled. South Africa is, by some measures, the most unequal country in the world. Communities are still largely segregated across the same ethnic lines as they were in 1994, and the expropriation of land without compensation from white landowners is now firmly on the political agenda as a proposed solution to address the structural legacies of the past.

Political killings linked to patronage networks within the ANC are rife in KwaZulu Natal, while there are frequent xenophobic attacks against migrants across South Africa, many of whom come from neighbouring countries. There are also regularly service-delivery protests across the nation over everything from housing to job opportunities to basic governance. These were not supposed to be the rewards of democratic freedom.

Simultaneously, the ruling ANC is in turmoil. Although Cyril Ramaphosa offers a new direction following the presidency of Jacob Zuma, which was dogged by corruption and rape allegations, the ruling party is without a clear sense of ideological coherence. At the same time, accusations of self-interest and nepotism persist across the political elite. There are frequent exposés of fraud and corruption, not to say “state capture”, which do little to enhance the democratic vision set out in 1994. With all this abuse of public office, South Africa’s leaders have let the country down very badly.

Current president: Cyril Ramaphosa. EPA

Yet despite things going awry, South Africa has remained a functioning and recognised democracy since the end of apartheid. The ANC may have been the incumbent party since 1994, but the democratic norms and traditions entrenched in the first election continue to be respected. Each subsequent election has been declared legitimate, free and fair. Even with the setbacks of the Zuma presidency, his removal from power signalled the existence of strong democratic institutions, a functioning opposition, an independent judiciary, and a critical and free media.

In the upcoming elections, 48 parties will stand, and 26.7m South Africans will have the opportunity to vote – albeit only 74.5% of the population has registered. The main challengers to the ANC’s hegemony, based on the 2016 municipal elections, are the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Their influence and support point toward a lively and functioning democracy.

While the 1990s vision of a fully developed rainbow nation may have been deferred, the lasting changes in institutions, governance, philosophy and mindset that emerged from that day in 1994 should not be undervalued. In a world where there is a growing backlash toward democracy and mounting cynicism regarding the act of voting, there is cause for celebration in South Africa. The fruits of democratic change are still there for the world to see.

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