South Africa

30 YEARS OF DEMOCRACY OP-ED

In these dark times in SA, we should find strength in that remarkable liberation day in 1994

In these dark times in SA, we should find strength in that remarkable liberation day in 1994
President Nelson Mandela at his inauguration in Pretoria on 10 May 1994. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / David Sandison)

Change does not come easily and it does not come quickly. But those who bore witness to the remarkable power of the South African liberation movement do not just believe change is possible. They know it can happen.

Exactly 30 years ago, just after Nelson Mandela had taken the oath of office as South Africa’s first fully representative, democratically elected president, came a moment that still gives me goosebumps. There was a deafening roar as a squadron of fighter jets flew low over the assembled crowd of which I was part. Instinctively, we flinched. But then four gigantic Oryx helicopters passed low above our heads, each towing a giant flag of the new South Africa – and it dawned on us. The military – and the state to which it belonged – were no longer enemies of the people. They now belonged to the people.

After graduating, I travelled to South Africa to work for the ANC as it transitioned from liberation movement to political party and, ultimately, to government. I’d long been active in the anti-apartheid movement in Britain and was filled with a youthful idealism which, surprisingly, despite having taken a battering, has never left me. Indeed, the power of that inauguration day and the struggle that had led up to it, remain an indelible source of inspiration.

When Mandela was released from jail in 1992, the poet Breyten Breytenbach wrote: “Perhaps there is now a little more sense to our dark passage on Earth.” As he was sworn in, watched by a live television audience of more than a billion, these words had never rung so true. Sadly, in the three decades that have passed, they have not come close to ringing so true again. 

Not only has that moment of high-octane global optimism not been matched, but with the world mired in seemingly intractable conflicts and more than seven months into the Gaza war, that day feels like a very distant place. 

Indeed, if Mandela’s inauguration was a high-water mark of human development, the current state of the world feels like a low point in humanity’s recent history. Yet, despite the current clouds of despondency, there are lessons to be learnt and hope to be gleaned from that day in South Africa and the movement that made it possible.

To understand how that day came about, it is vital to recognise the fortuitous confluence of historical and political factors at work. The fall of the Berlin Wall fewer than five years before had shifted the Cold War’s tectonic plates, removing the Western government’s determination to support the apartheid regime as a bulwark against the supposed threat of communism. The impact of boycotts was being keenly felt and the clamour of international approbation was growing ever louder. Added to this, the grassroots anti-apartheid struggle was reaching its height with a politically educated population unified around a single, clear goal steered by leaders of remarkable integrity, principle and moral stature.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: Our journey towards realising the dream imagined in 1994 is far from over

(Photo: Supplied by author)

(Photo: Supplied by author)

(Photo: Supplied by author)

In a 1944 essay, Arthur Koestler describes “periods and movements in history… when at least certain representative layers of society had attained a relatively high level of mental integration; times when people seemed to rub their eyes and come awake, when their cosmic awareness seemed to expand, when they were ‘contemporaries’ in a much broader and fuller sense”.

This description fits my memory of South Africa at that time and captures the raw energy and spirit that seems to bloom at certain moments in history. It is an elusive and intangible force – the result of a rare alchemy – which seems capable, at the time, of sweeping aside all obstacles in its path. But despite its sudden appearance, such an energy takes a long time to grow.

What has happened in South Africa over the past three decades does not tarnish the brightness of that day which shone with possibility in the newly post-Cold War world.

Simplistic depictions of the “miracle birth” of the so-called rainbow nation mask a fact: that day in 1994 was the culmination of a long and painful gestation. The ANC had been formed 82 years earlier and the liberation movement had seen decades of campaigning, struggle and sacrifice.  

Indeed, it is easy to forget just how close the county came to civil war even in those tense and blood-soaked months, weeks and days before the elections. As someone who was working for the ANC during that time, I can attest that there were many times – right up until election day – that, in Mandela’s words, it seemed impossible until it was done.

With weeks to go before the elections, violence in KwaZulu-Natal was escalating, with the Inkatha Freedom Party boycotting the elections. Tensions were mounting in the “homelands” of Ciskei, QwaQwa and Bophuthatswana and well-armed Afrikaner militias were mobilising.

Days before the elections, bomb attacks in Johannesburg, Germiston and Pretoria, all bearing the hallmarks of white separatist groups, killed more than 100 people. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

(Photo: Supplied by author)

(Photo: Supplied by author)

(Photo: Supplied by author)

And yet these attempts to derail the elections failed and at midnight on election eve, I watched as the new flag was raised above Parliament in Cape Town. A few days later, as the results were announced on Cape Town’s Grand Parade, a wave of emotion swept the crowd. A week after the results, I joined a bunch of ANC staff as we piled into a battered Toyota and made the journey to Pretoria to witness history.

On this anniversary of South Africa’s transition to democracy, many commentators are rightly reflecting on the faded colours of the so-called rainbow nation: the abject failures, the corruption and the unfulfilled potential.

The victory of the ANC was never going to usher in sudden societal transformation and the structures that had created and upheld apartheid were not going to magically disappear. Nevertheless, it is clear the promise of genuine transformative change as set out in the Freedom Charter, has – for numerous reasons – been betrayed.

And yet what has happened in South Africa over the past three decades does not tarnish the brightness of that day which shone with possibility in the newly post-Cold War world.

Read more in Daily Maverick: A ‘beautiful, imperfect journey’ — a photographer recalls the ‘near miracle’ of SA’s 1994 election

Despite a few flashes of hope such as the Arab Spring, there have been precious few moments of global optimism over the interceding decades. Some may ask, “Where are today’s Mandelas?”, and although we may never see his like again, there are many around the world following in his footsteps. Their stories and struggles may not make the headlines, but each day courageous activists and human rights defenders, poets and politicians, musicians and journalists stand up against injustice.

While these may be dark times, we should take strength from that day 30 years ago. Change does not come easily and it does not come quickly. It can be diverted, subverted and corrupted. But nevertheless, those who bore witness to the remarkable power of the South African liberation movement do not just believe that change is possible. They know it can happen.

“Our deepest fear isn’t that we are weak. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure,” Nelson Mandela told the crowd that day. “It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence liberates others.” DM

Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist and campaigner who worked in the press office (Department of Information and Publicity) for the ANC Western Cape.

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