Reflections on Three Decades: South Africa's Post-Apartheid Journey

Thirty years have passed since Nelson Mandela was elected as the first democratic president of the Republic of South Africa. A great promise of equal opportunities for all was made. But today the country is in numerous problems

by Sededin Dedovic
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Reflections on Three Decades: South Africa's Post-Apartheid Journey
© Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

It's been thirty years since Nelson Mandela was elected as the first democratic president of the Republic of South Africa. There was a great promise of equal opportunities for all. But today, the country is facing numerous problems.

South Africa (SA) fell into euphoria after the first free elections in 1994. People waited for hours to vote. The spirit of optimism accompanied Nelson Mandela, who was elected president after 27 years of imprisonment. The African National Congress (ANC), Mandela's political party and former anti-apartheid movement, still governs todayHowever, looking at the past three decades in the "land of hope," the balance of that governance is not exactly impressive.

The economy is in a poor state, society is divided, and people feel that politics doesn't concern them much. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening. Ironically, bridging this gap and ensuring equal opportunities for all was the main promise when South African blacks took power three decades ago.

Today, there's deep frustration over the betrayal of this dream. But there have been significant achievements. Fredson Gilenži, program director at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Johannesburg, highlights several: "We managed to introduce one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, establish independent judiciary, achieve press freedom, and create conditions for free and fair elections." In a conversation with DW, he mentions LGBTQ rights, expanded education, and better access to electricity, housing, and social services for the poor.

Moreover, SA still has a strong civil society that loudly advocates for its rights. However, in recent years, the country has suffered from internal conflicts within the ANC. Power struggles and corrupt interests have repeatedly hindered the country.

According to Gilenži, the fact that nearly every second person under 34 is unemployed further fuels social instability. This intensifies the feeling that foreigners are taking the few available jobs from locals. The ruling party has been losing trust over the years.

The ANC could fall below the absolute majority of 50% of votes in the May elections – where President Cyril Ramaphosa is running for a second term. According to economic analyst Daniel Zilke, there's deep disappointment over the liberation party's inability.

It "fails to maintain the ethical standards that Nelson Mandela especially set," Zilke tells DW. "They've abandoned the efforts to unite people into one nation that were particularly noticeable in Mandela's early years," says Zilke.

An aerial view of the Green Point Stadium which will host matches in the FIFA 2010 World Cup, on the January 26, 2010 in Cape To© David Rogers / Getty Images

The country entered its most serious crisis under the leadership of Jacob Zuma, who ruled from 2009 until his removal in 2018.

During his tenure, through plunder and with the help of a wide corruption network, he brought the state to the brink of bankruptcy. SA hasn't recovered from this. In fact, nepotism persists to this day, emphasizes Zilke. Infrastructure collapse with a stagnant economy is a daily reminder of the decline of what was once Africa's richest industrial country.

"There's a lot of discontent among the population," says Zilke.

Deep Scars from the Apartheid Era

Critics also question whether three decades are enough to eliminate the legacy of deep colonialism and apartheid. Vern Harris, executive director of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, sees society in great difficulty.

The bar was set high. "Some young people say Mandela was a traitor," says Harris, referring to Mandela's promises of a better life in a united country. "We have to ask ourselves why we haven't done better." In the early 90s, everyone was aware that it would take several generations to heal society and anchor democracy in it.

"We were quickly deluded that we could solve things in a short time," says Harris. "In some cases, this led to quick fixes that didn't serve us well." On the international stage, SA seems to want to position itself – especially after its experience with apartheid – as a leading fighter against oppression globally, says Gilenži.

As a result, the country leads peace initiatives, sends troops to countries in the region, and goes before international courts. In late December, South Africa accused Israel of violating the Genocide Convention during the Gaza war before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The country has realized that its traditional partnership with the West is unbalanced and needs to change. "For this reason, South Africa advocates for reforms in the UN Security Council and is a member of BRICS, which claims to fight for fair rules and economic partnerships," says Gilenži. "We may become a more active South Africa in the future both in Africa and globally," DW reports.

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