Archiv der sozialen Demokratie

South Africa's democracy thirty years on - hope and disillusionment

Thirty years ago, the eyes of the world were on South Africa. 27 April, the date of the first non-racial democratic election, occupies a big place in South Africa’s imagination of freedom. The tireless pursuit of generations that fought against colonialism and apartheid finally bore fruit.

The voter turnout for this historic election was high by any measure. Of the 22,7 million adults at the time, over 19 million adults voted. Voter turnout was highest amongst black people and particularly high among black youth at 93%. The African National Congress, campaigning with the magnetic slogan – a better life for all – secured the biggest chunk of the votes at 62.65 % or over 12 million people. Trailing second was the party that presided over apartheid – the National Party –with over 3.9 million votes, amounting to a total of 20.39 %. The Zulu-nationalist party – Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) secured 10.54 of the vote – an impressive number given its refusal to sign on to the elections until eight days before the polls were due to take place.

Although 27 April is marked on SA’s history calendar as a Freedom Day, the voting itself was conducted over several days, from 26 – 29 April, with different slots marked for different categories like the elderly and the infirm.

A rocky road

Though widely praised as a miracle, the events leading to 27 April 1994 were some of the most turbulent in the nation’s history. Determined to hold on to the powers and privileges afforded by apartheid, sections of the white establishment – upper echelons of the security forces and senior ministers in government – worked with a range of interests to unleash violence, terror, fear and chaos on black working-class townships. Between 1985 and 1994, violence engulfed industrial districts in towns and cities close to Johannesburg as well as Kwa-Zulu Natal, the second most populated region of the country, resulting in the deaths of over 20,000 people. On their way to work, workers in these incidents were thrown out of moving trains. There were bullets fired into the vigils attended by mourners. During the dead of night, whole families were wiped off in massacres. The nation was on the brink of a precipice, with thousands of people being uprooted and many going missing.

The talks for a new settlement collapsed on the back of state-sponsored massacres and the fightback by fringe white right and separatist groups. The most politically significant of these massacres took place in the township of Boipatong some 70 kilometres from Johannesburg. Over 40 people including a 9-month-old child were killed and maimed on 17 June 1992 while attending a funeral service. The ANC responded to this act by withdrawing from the negotiations table, citing the apartheid regime’s complicity in the violence gripping the townships at the time.

For most of 1992 and 1993, there was bloodshed and fatal altercations between the ANC-aligned township residents and migrant workers staying in single-sex hostels, which made up the IFP's social base.

On April 10 1993 talks for a transfer of power from the white minority to a democratically elected government had just resumed when Chris Hani, the charismatic Chief of Staff of the ANC’s military wing and General Secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP), was shot and killed outside his east Johannesburg home. Hani’s assassination sent shockwaves across the country. Using the moment, the ANC increased pressure on the parties to reach a settlement. It also tabled more urgent demands including the announcement of the election date and the immediate installation of an interim government.

Hopes and dreams

The voting marked by snaking queues – symbols of a people's resolve for freedom and hope for a better life. 27 April is also considered a milestone in the liberation journey even if the vote is but one instrument in the toolbox of liberation. People interviewed in long lines voiced both excitement and eagerness for a new society, but they also expressed fear that efforts to create such a society would be hampered by the bloodletting that had occurred in the run up to the election.

“I have been oppressed ever since I was born. My parents have been oppressed also. I voted. I think things will come my way” commented one young voter.

“I am scared that things will get out of the way. That there will be a lot of violence. But my hopes are that things will turn out a lot more peaceful” observed another.

Although the ANC secured the majority vote in these elections, falling a few numbers short of a two-thirds majority – the party made overtures to the opposing forces by entering into a Government of National Unity with Nelson Mandela as the first democratically elected president of the country and FW De Klerk as deputy president. The cabinet also included members from the IFP and the National Party.

April 1994 set in motion the process to form a constituent assembly of elected representatives that would oversee the drafting of a new constitution that combines participatory and representative elements of democracy. The new constitution would also guarantee dignity and fundamental human rights, as well as promote freedom and social justice. It further guarantees the right to equality and prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, or creed.

Thirty years on

Thirty years have passed since this historic day on 27 April 1994, and most of the hope, excitement, and exhilaration have dissipated. Ahead of the seventh general election on 29 May 2024, there is a great deal of cynicism and disenchantment with democracy and politics particularly among young people. Voter turnout has been in steady decline with the lowest turnout being in 2021 when only 12 million of the 26 million voters cast their ballot.

When probed about non-participation in elections, many young voters simply shrug their shoulders with the statement, “What’s the point? It’s all the same anyway." Unlike the youth who voted in 1994, many believe that their vote will not bring about real change. And who can blame them? Unemployment, hovering above 32%, disproportionately affects young people. Young people between the ages of 15 – 34 account for over half of the 7.9 million people without access to jobs. While the ANC’s social programmes have improved access for the poor to electricity, water, housing and education, decades of market-led policies, mismanagement, and looting have commodified public services and decimated public infrastructure like roads, energy, and the rail network. Across the country, municipalities are on the brink of collapse, with rubbish piling on the streets and infrastructure caving in after years of neglect. Wealth ownership patterns still reflect the old society. Trust in public institutions and politicians is at an all-time low. Intra-elite violence, gender-based violence and the proliferation of criminal gangs not only prevent many from enjoying freedom but also hamper the kind of democratic participation needed to turn the country’s politics around. As South Africans prepare to mark 30 years of democracy and perhaps the most significant elections since 1994, there’s increasing skepticism at the ANC’s promise of a better life for all. This prompts the question: do South Africans still believe a better is tomorrow attainable under continued ANC rule? The poll on 29 May might provide some answers to this question.

Phindile Kunene (FES South Africa)

Further Reading

P. Bonner und N. Nieftagodien, Ekurhuleni: the making of an urban region, 2012.

A look at 27 April 1994 election day:

R. Jennings, D. Everatt und G. Masebe, Young people at the polls: youth voting in the 1994 and 1995 elections Indicator South Africa, Vol.15, Issue 4, January 1998, pp. 9 – 14.

1994 National and Provincial Elections:

Violence in the time of negotiations: The Boipatong massacre:

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