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Letters from Tomorrow — on 30 years of democracy

Letters from Tomorrow — on 30 years of democracy
Long queues of voters during the first democratic South African general elections on 27 April 1994 (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Raymond Preston)

If you could go back to 27 April 1994 knowing what you know now about the collective journey we started on that day, what would you say to South Africa about the meaning of that day and what is to come? What perspectives would you offer? What feelings would you express about our first democratic elections and what lies ahead, unbeknown to us at that point in time?

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of our democracy, a few people will share, from today until 26 May 2024, letters to South Africa in contemplation of these questions. “Letters from Tomorrow” is akin to writing a letter to your younger self, but you are writing to a South Africa on the threshold of its democratic journey.

We hope these letters offer a more personal and intimate account of what democracy has meant for some of our people. We hope that as we head towards our next elections, these letters will inspire us to deeply reflect on where we have been, where we are and where we hope to go.

30 years of democracy letters

Lwando Xaso. (Photo: Supplied)

A daring idea

Dear South Africa,

I have heard from the chatter among the adults around me that today is the biggest of days. South Africa, these early years of my life have been overwhelmed by this very big and heady history in the making, which will become the spine of my future. Living through this history is both the greatest gift and the greatest curse of my life.

My heart, mind, voice and hands have all, for better or worse, been shaped by these days of darkness and light, violence and hope, fear and love, destruction and imagination, and endings and beginnings.

I may not know it now, but my politics, poetry, work and aspirations will be, for better or worse, moulded by the choices the adults around me are making at this moment. My faith in change as real and material, not as just fanciful and elusive, will be shaped by what I have glimpsed in this era. Everyone is describing this moment as a miracle. And years from now, even when those words fall to disuse, I will claim it as such, not in a triumphalist sense, but in awe of just how improbable it is that we find ourselves here.

South Africa, I have never known you to be at peace, but in my short life I have known people, both kin and unrelated, who have gifted me with that sense of peace, who have held me, fed me, healed me, taught me, sustained me and saved my life every day when I was growing up in a country whose laws, policies, politicians and institutions rendered me and my kind unworthy, unseen and unheard.

Years from now I will learn that these first democratic elections will not usher in an era of peace as I imagine it right now. For many people these first democratic elections will not mean the redemption of their subjugated lives. Many people will remain, decades into our democracy, unworthy, unseen and unheard by a neglectful democratic government. Democratic by name and not deed.

There will be neglected black children in the future. There will be state violence in the future. This violence will be all the more devastating because it will be at the hands of those we have democratically chosen and empowered. It will be at the hands of those whose hands are the same colour as mine.

The violence will continue because we will fail to exorcise the demons of our past. Many of the people who will take public office have been traumatised by the horrors of apartheid, and that unchecked and unhealed trauma will become our culture, to be passed down to generations to come.

The legitimacy of this monumental step we are taking towards democracy will be compromised by the failure of the perpetrators of colonial and apartheid-era crimes, their accomplices, bystanders and beneficiaries to repair what they have broken, to return what they have stolen and to restore what they have plundered.

In the years to come it will dawn on me that today does not mean that the struggle ends, but that it continues under marginally better conditions.

The wisdom that is to come will also reveal to me that blaming solely our colonial and apartheid-era past for the challenges that we will face is incomplete, and blaming just the present for where we find ourselves will be dishonest. Our problems will always be a blend of the inherited and self-created of the historical and present, and of the black and white and in between.

By virtue of a combination of luck, strategic plotting and planning by my parents and community, aided by my own hard work, my life under this beckoning democracy will be beyond any dream my grandparents could have dreamt for me. However, what will it mean for our democracy for some of us to make it when most of us will remain in perilous circumstances? When most of us are vulnerable, then all of us are vulnerable. That’s the lesson we will fail to learn from apartheid.

In the years to come it will dawn on me that today does not mean that the struggle ends, but that it continues under marginally better conditions. When I am older, I will not see this as the day we became a democracy because democracy is a state and a practice of becoming. Today we are starting that journey of becoming and, unfortunately, of unbecoming.

South Africa, my limited thinking of you as a nation state will be replaced with thinking of you as a daring idea. An idea that can be held by anyone, anywhere, citizen or not. An idea of you as a bridge. The proverbial bridge away from our pasts marked by violence, inequality, injustice, pain, oppression, wretchedness, trauma, lovelessness, abandonment, strife, conflict and untold suffering, towards a future of peace, equality, justice, joy, freedom, redemption, healing, love, ubuntu, security, abundance and care.

The defining question that will plague my adulthood is whether South Africa is possible. “No” is an unthinkable answer.

South Africa, we need for this idea to work.


Lwando Xaso

1994: Primary school student.

2024: Lawyer and founder of Including Society.

Vusi Pikoli. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Lauren Mulligan)

I will never regret today

Dear South Africa,

This is the day we had sacrificed so much for when we surreptitiously slipped away from our homes and our country for foreign lands in pursuit of freedom and justice. Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Namibia have been here before. Now is our turn. Freedom songs sung with zest are still ringing in our ears. Painful, flashing images of lowering coffins into the bowels of the earth are still vivid in that inward eye. Not too long ago coffins carrying the mortal remains of comrades fallen in battle shouting “Freedom or death!” were a common sight.

At the age of 36, I am going to cast my vote for the very first time today, 27 April 1994. I have butterflies in my stomach. I am anxious. This is a vote that will salvage my human dignity that has hitherto been ravaged by the inhumane apartheid system declared by the whole world to be a crime against humanity.

A dignity that was never lost but was severely violated by our oppressors, will be reclaimed today. The vote I am going to cast is to ensure that South Africa becomes a constitutional democracy that values the supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law. My vote is going to be for section 10 of the Interim Constitution of 1993, a vote to affirm that “everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected”.

Two years from now the interim Constitution of 1993, which brought us to these inaugural free and democratic elections, which, for the first time, made all of us equal before the law and gave us the right to equal protection and benefit of the law, as outlined in its section 8, will give birth to a new Constitution which will be adopted on 8 May 1996 and go on to be amended more than 16 times.

Thirty years after this historic moment, South Africa will stand as a constitutional democracy. I will never come to regret today, waiting in the sun in a long, snaking queue to cast my vote.

South Africa, what we could never have anticipated or thought of today, though, is that a time will come when some of those who fought on the side of the progressive forces of liberation will become turncoats; that some of the very people who fought for this moment will be the same ones to piss on our Constitution and the values enshrined in it. How will one-time heroes become villains?

After the euphoria of this moment, corruption in both the public and private sectors will become an existential threat to a burgeoning economy and democracy. Will this not be a betrayal of the struggle for national liberation and an insult to those who laid down their lives so we may know freedom and democracy? It will be.

How will one-time heroes become villains?

What will always give me eternal hope in the years to come is the resilience of some of our institutions, including the judiciary, civil society and the media. A return to good governance will always feel within our grasp thanks to a transformative Constitution, a tool for an active citizenry.

South Africa, throughout all that is to come and what we will have to face, it is my right to vote that will continue to serve as my fundamental power as a citizen to keep fighting for the realisation of the South African dream.

Many South Africans died for the right to vote, and I will honour them by voting today. I will honour them by making good on this opportunity to make South Africa the country we all want to live in.

South Africa, as you journey forth, please keep these words by the Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero close:

“A nation can survive its fools and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gate is less formidable. For he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves among those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims and wears their face and arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear. The traitor is the plague.”


Vusi Pikoli

PS: To the undecideds, do not pack for Perth. South Africa is a country of endless opportunities.

1994: Lawyer in the ANC’s legal and constitutional affairs department.

2024: Special adviser to the minister of water and sanitation.

Savanthika Pillay. (Photo: Supplied)

To say sorry

Dear South Africa,

I know you are excited and are looking forward to voting. Many people have sacrificed their lives for your first democratic elections today. These elections are going to bring some really important and necessary changes, as they usher in a legitimate government for the first time. That is worth losing sleep over and feeling excited about. Enjoy today. Enjoy making history in this inspiring way.

But I am mostly writing to say sorry.

Until now, you’ve lived a very insulated life which has rendered you completely naive and brainwashed. Quite simply, you have been shaped by an architecture that was meant to brainwash you, to disconnect you, to scare you, to confuse you, to mislead you.

I am writing to apologise because I am not describing the system that you’re coming out of. I am describing the system that you’re going to continue to exist in, the matrix.

South Africa, as we hold our first democratic elections, Rwanda is in the early stages of genocide. Thirty years later, when we head once again to the polls on 29 May 2024, the world will watch helplessly as Zionist Israel and powerful Western countries commit a genocide in Gaza.

I am sorry that everything will change and also nothing will change. I am sorry that you will experience history repeating itself again and again, which is why every changing of the guard that you will see, even here at home, will all be a ruse.

You will assimilate, fawn and appease; you will form alliances and polarise others

I am sorry that this history on repeat means that all the coming humanitarian crises will continue in some way to be engineered by Western regimes which remain in control of the system. I am sorry that your cynicism that you have worked so hard to dislodge will start to take hold again. I am sorry that you will feel horrified and anguished. I am sorry that you will witness unimaginable and unspeakable violence. I am sorry that you will see so much suffering and so many maimed and bloodied and dead children.

I am sorry that the very system which will oppress you, mislead you and exploit you is the very same system that you are, at this historic moment, trying frantically to get admission to because a terrible price will be paid to be excluded from it.

So, among other things, you will assimilate, fawn and appease; you will form alliances and polarise others; and because no energy and money and time will be given to your healing, you will start to use your power in the same way it was used against you.

The late British Labour politician Tony Benn said we should ask those in positions of economic, social and political power these questions:

What power have you got?

Where did you get it from?

In whose interests do you exercise it?

To whom are you accountable?

How can we get rid of you?

Benn concluded that if we cannot get rid of the people who govern us, we do not live in a democratic system. It dawns on me too that true democracy does not really exist, anywhere in the world.

South Africa, I hope that one day soon you will stop, breathe, look around you and, with a courageous heart and an unflinching eye, turn the mirror towards yourself. In that moment, you will make a choice: either to have your eyes wide open or to become wilfully blind.


Savanthika Pillay

1994: Social worker.

2024: Trauma-informed facilitator and coach specialising in somatic and awareness-based systems change.

Albie Sachs. (Photo: Gallo Images / Frennie Shivambu)

We can do it again

Dear South Africa,

Let your joy be undiluted. There are moments in the history of a person and of a nation when you must just be jubilant. Grief there has been before, oceans of grief. And grief there will be afterwards, masses of it. But elections, one person, one vote, the first inestimable great leap forward in achieving our goal of freedom in our lifetime – wow!

Celebrate today with unadulterated purity and delight. We did it! 

Other nations mark their independence with the band playing in front of an elite invited audience; the old flag comes down and a new flag rises up. In our case, 20 million people will move slowly forward in long, long lines to drop a piece of paper into a box… This is our independence!

Brilliant! Mayibuye, mayibuye iAfrika (Come back, Africa)!

Whatever disappointments might follow, never forget what we, the people, are capable of achieving. We’ve done it once; we can do it again. iAfrika, mayibuye!


Albie Sachs

1994: Professor Extraordinary at the Community Law Centre, University of the Western Cape.

2024: Former Justice of the Constitutional Court.


Daily Maverick has closed comments on all elections articles for the next two weeks. While we do everything in our power to ensure deliberately false, misleading and hateful commentary does not get published on our site, it’s simply not possible for our small team to have sight of every comment. Given the political dynamics of the moment, we cannot risk malignant actors abusing our platform to manipulate and mislead others. We remain committed to providing you with a platform for dynamic conversation and exchange and trust that you understand our need for circumspection at this sensitive time for our country.

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