25 years after the triumph of hope: South Africa’s lingering social justice challenges

I still vividly remember the night of 26 April 1994. It was the night of the burial of apartheid and the eve of South Africa’s first all-race elections. In a solemn ceremony, the old apartheid flag was lowered and replaced by the multi-coloured one that symbolises the rainbow nation. I was in Kimberly, the two-day old capital city of the then newly created Northern Cape province that was split from Cape Province. The city is famous until now for the largest, deep hand-dug excavation called the Big Hole where many high-quality diamonds were extracted. The Northern Cape is also where the Orania settlement, whose leaders have called for a Volkstaat (homeland) for the Afrikaner who rejected the concept of a rainbow nation, can be found.

The choir accompanied by everyone in the square sang “Nkosi Sikelel'i Afrika” as South Africa’s national anthem for the first time. Afterwards, shouts of joy erupted, people danced and hugged each other with tears of happiness flowing from their eyes. Many probably did not sleep at all, or hardly, after that moment. People told me the next day that they counted the minutes before dawn when they could all go to the polling precincts and cast their historic votes.

The energy in the air kept me awake too. It was one of my most memorable nights. I was a witness to the birth of a nation. The next day, we arrived at our first voting precinct a little more than an hour before it opened. There were long lines of people already at the doors, many had walked for hours from faraway places.

Memories from the birth of a nation

I was in South Africa 25 years ago as a member of the International Team of Consultants of the country’s Independent Electoral Commission. It was then a newly established body, which only had less than four months to organise and implement South Africa’s first fully inclusive democratic elections. The tasks were daunting and the stakes were high. A few weeks before the elections, no one knew for certain whether peace would prevail.

“We are still finishing our boat, while already trying to steer it and stay afloat in the middle of the ocean with big waves coming”, was the common expression by many cadres from the African National Congress (ANC) that attended the victory party in Johannesburg a few days after the elections. It was the first public event addressed by Nelson Mandela as the country’s president. There were big uncertainties and challenges, but everyone was full of hope and pride, as they should be, at that victory celebration.

Everybody was looking forward to the fulfilment of the promise of “a better life for all”. The prevalent expectation was that the ANC can do anything. South Africa, the world in one country, is so rich in resources and from then on led by a party that forged its ideas of service from one of the most iconic liberation struggles of the 20th century.

Six elections after

The ANC, South Africa’s ruling party for more than two decades now, has won the vote in the six elections after that first one in 1994. Given the country’s political dynamics, it was assured of another victory this year. I have been able to visit South Africa five more times since 1994 and have seen the big decline in the ANC’s popularity in the last 25 years. I lived there for almost a year in 2015. It was painful to see how the hope I witnessed from people has turned into cynicism and worry about the political, economic and environmental storms the country is facing now.

Many feel the country's problems have increased over the years. The ANC became complacent after decades of unchallenged governance. Media reports and political discussions talk about how government corruption has become an endemic problem, that violent crimes have increased, the big backlog in housing remains and squatter communities just keep expanding. The unemployment rate is officially at 27%, but many trade union organisers peg it at 40%. Millions of poor blacks have seen little or no improvement in their lives.

The focus of the ANC’s economic development plan since it gained power has been about globalising the South African economy and deracialising South African capitalism. These are not easy. Progressive experts, however, have argued for a few years now that this economic strategy has already reached its limits. Government planners are somewhat trapped in 20th century ideas of industrialisation and globalisation that have failed in solving the huge social justice deficit in the country.

South Africa’s huge challenges

Many in the South African Left understand that it is not enough to be fed up with the continuing increase of inequality and unemployment in the country. Unfortunately, as Vishwas Satgar explained in his assessment of the manifestos of the main parties in this year’s election, there is a huge lack of inspiring leadership fit for today’s more complex and trying times. The discussion on appropriate solutions and alternatives to the current systems, to start the discussions on addressing current levels of inequality and the already runaway ecological crisis, is sorely lacking.

Indeed, the ANC, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) merely presented differing tints of green neoliberalism and adherence to the Paris Agreement as a way forward. There is a lack of ecological politics in the discussion of political economy. It is true that there are remaining issues on racial oppression, and it is understandable that it continues to dominate the ideological frame of both the ANC and EFF. As Patrick Bond indicates, the vast colonial and apartheid land dispossessions have become a powerful election issue, with the ANC now promising “expropriation without compensation”, earlier popularised by the EFF. He has also emphasised in his many articles in Amandla magazine that this should be updated and enhanced with analyses of those involved in generational and gender-justice campaigns.

Some 40 parties have competed in the elections and people will view this week’s result as a big test for the ANC. It has to respond to today’s social and climate justice challenges. Right now, there is an urgent need to institutionally and sustainably distribute the gains from the country’s dirty industries more broadly to get people out of poverty and create a healthier economic base while setting procedures for a just transition in the shortest possible time. Without making concrete steps on this, the ANC and South Africa face deep economic crisis.


Photo: Christine Henske/Flickr

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