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30 years of democracy in South Africa


UNIDENTIFIED VOTER #1: We can't even describe the feelings, but we are just so happy that at long last, we have been given this opportunity to vote.


Almost exactly 30 years ago, Black South Africans voted for the first time in democratic elections as apartheid came to an end. NPR spoke to voters that day.


UNIDENTIFIED VOTER #2: I'm very, very, very most happiest Black man in South Africa to cast a vote for the person whom we have chosen.

UNIDENTIFIED VOTER #3: It makes me feel like I'm above the moon. I feel I'm a human being too. I'm not negative like it used to be.

DETROW: A historic 86% of eligible South Africans came out to vote in that first election since apartheid. And they elected Nelson Mandela, a Black man who had spent nearly three decades in prison for his role battling the country's segregationist structures. A few weeks later, Mandela was inaugurated. With his arms wide open in celebration, a joyous Archbishop Desmond Tutu welcomed Mandela.


DESMOND TUTU: Friends, fellow South Africans, I ask you welcome our brand-new state president out of the box, Nelson Mandela.


DETROW: Mandela became president, as well as leader of the African National Congress political party, which from that point dominated South African politics.


NELSON MANDELA: The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divides us has come. The time to build is upon us. We have at last achieved our political emancipation.

DETROW: It was a moment of great hope and the beginning of rebuilding the structure of South African government, its economy and social life to include Black South Africans as equals.


MANDELA: The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement. Let freedom ring. God bless Africa. I thank you.


DETROW: And now, 30 years since that historic day, South Africa is looking ahead to its seventh national election since the end of apartheid. Mandela's political party, the ANC, has remained in power for the past three decades. But for the first time, it faces serious opposition. But the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, says his party needs more time.


PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: Is 30 years enough to erase the impact of colonialism and apartheid? My answer to that is 30 years is not enough. We need more time.

DETROW: The ANC has been riddled with corruption scandals, and many South Africans have grown disillusioned with the party. Here's South African political commentator and author Justice Malala.

JUSTICE MALALA: Many in South Africa regard the ANC as the antithesis of Mandela. No matter how much the party attempts to banish its name using Mandela's image, the public just isn't buying it anymore.

DETROW: Thirty years ago, South Africa became an emblem of democracy. What's the legacy of that milestone, and what does that mean for this upcoming election? Redi Thlabi is a South African broadcaster and journalist. She recently relocated to Washington, D.C., and joins me now in NPR Studios. Thanks for being here.

REDI THLABI: It's wonderful to be with you. Thank you.

DETROW: What do you remember about 1994?

THLABI: Oh, it was autumn - what you call the fall. It was warm but got chilly later on in the afternoon. I was about 16, and I accompanied my mother, who was voting for the very first time in her life. And I recall talking to her about how sad it was that my dad didn't live to see a democratic South Africa. My grandparents didn't live to see a democratic South Africa from my father's side. But from my mother's side they did. So there was this kind of intergenerational celebration and marking of the moment. The queues were long. The adults around us were just so ecstatic. And even as - even children understood the enormity of the moment. But as a teenager, I understood the political significance.

DETROW: I mean, we heard from NPR's interviews that day just the swelling sense of optimism that you're recalling. But then the ANC takes power. Mandela is in charge of things. What were some of the first noticeable changes for day-to-day life once apartheid had ended and Black South Africans were a full part of society?

THLABI: I think one of the things I can remember is that we were getting along - Black and white. Of course, it doesn't mean all that pain, all the chasm, all the structural injustices are gone. But if you came to South Africa at that time, you would find joint celebrations over the outcome of a football match - a soccer match. And the years following our democracy, yes, you could say they were jubilant, but there was a lot of work to do. We had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where all that horrible brutality was articulated and expressed. We're putting together a constitution, our first constitution.

But the second thing that I remember, there were a lot of promises. And I think that's why today is also painful because we remember the promises of free education, free water, free electricity, a clean, inclusive government. And well, we can talk about the distance between the hope and the promise and where we are today.

DETROW: I want to talk about that. But before we focus on that, another question I had looking back 30 years is that 30 years is one of those period of time that for people, it feels like a very long period of time, but for a country, it's really not that long. And I'm wondering, do you feel like there are - are there any remnants of that very long apartheid era that still show themselves here and there in South African society?

THLABI: I would say that there are remnants of apartheid that show themselves in South African society. One, that free electricity and water that we were promised, it may have been caused by the apartheid government having Black people live in underdeveloped environments, far from working opportunities and, you know, the gentrification, spatial development. That is the responsibility of the apartheid government. But I think anybody who has a modicum of decency and values the truth must acknowledge that the ANC government has continued those patterns of arrangements and oppression.

What I mean by that is that there are areas in South Africa that have never seen clean water come out of a tap. And some of them live next to rivers, by the way. But you need infrastructure to make water a reality or the delivery thereof a reality. There are others who have not experienced the joy of electricity. But I can tell you now, the one thing that breaks my heart as a journalist, as a Black child from South Africa is that there are children who still have to cross rivers to get to school because the government has not built roads. So that is an apartheid picture that the ANC did nothing to fix, and that's a reality.

DETROW: And this frustration and agitation that you feel - when you're talking to your peers and friends, people around your age, I'm wondering, does that color your retrospective views on 1994 and that big breakthrough moment at all? Or do you think these are two separate things? This was establishing a new government and then how government has played out over time.

THLABI: These are completely two separate things. I'll tell you what, we could not endure another minute of oppression where we can't vote in our own country. We couldn't endure another moment of police brutality, another moment of being excluded from quality education and quality health. So for Black people, it was important that the shackles of apartheid are broken. Nothing can ever undo the significance and the urgency of that moment. Regardless of the nonsense that the ANC is subjecting us to, apartheid had to fall.

And it is not helpful, and I think it is hypocritical and revisionist, to look back at history and say, well, 1994 couldn't have meant anything because we've got problems now. No, I got an education today as a Black woman because I could go to university and get access to the kind of education that my grandparents didn't have. So let's not diminish the importance of breaking apartheid because all over the world, it is not good for humanity to have a hierarchy, to have toxic power relations in society where people are condemned to a life of subjugation. So breaking apartheid remains important. Having a progressive constitution remains important. But it is heartbreaking to reflect on how the face of poverty in South Africa is still poor. It is - the face of poverty is still Black. And that is because the current government, a democratically elected government, has squandered the opportunities, I think.

DETROW: You have kids, right - a 10 and a 7-year-old?

THLABI: Yes, 10 and 7...

DETROW: Can I...

THLABI: ...Both girls.

DETROW: ...Ask what you've told them - how you tell them the story of what happened in 1994 and what that moment felt like then?

THLABI: OK, so my children do appreciate the specialness, the uniqueness of coming from a country that produced Nelson Mandela. In fact, I do recall on the day that Nelson Mandela was buried in the rural Eastern Cape at his house in Johannesburg, where I lived, my daughter was two months old, and I decided to put in a car seat and drive to Mandela's house 4 kilometers away. I can't - I don't know what that is in miles, but it's about 2.5 miles, I think. We drove there. I parked, and I joined South Africans of all races, all ages as we danced in the streets, threw flowers on the pavement. It was a celebratory moment. I'm getting goosebumps as I tell you. And so I tell my daughter all the time that - you know my darling, for two months of your life you breathed the same air as Nelson Mandela.

My children have always gone to multiracial schools. And they talk about racism as something that shocks them, that I can't believe there was a time where this was not allowed. Why did it happen? Why did it happen? And I teach them that we shouldn't allow it to happen. I can't believe Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in jail. He wasn't the only one. We should never, ever build a world where people are sent to jail all because they want equality. So they understand that South Africa is a special place because of that. They understand that we chose reconciliation over war.

And those who are beating the drums of war today, talking about radicalism, talking about how we haven't fixed our country, racism, all of that, those things are still there. But war is never the right choice. We call them peacetime revolutionaries who talk so glibly around how Nelson Mandela sold out. Nelson Mandela did not sell out. He used the tools that he had - he and his peers - to get us to a certain point. It is our responsibility then to build our country. He can't be blamed for the fact that we are not a caring society, we are not affording socioeconomic rights to so many who are poor. So what I tell my daughters is that you are special because you come from South Africa, but you are not absolved of your responsibility to build a just world. I mean, my children are talking about what's happening in the Middle East. They're talking about Russia and Ukraine. But the tone is empathy because I think that's where we ought to start.

DETROW: Redi Thlabi, a South African broadcaster and journalist now based in Washington, D.C., thank you so much for coming on.

THLABI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHINS SONG, "THE FEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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