COLD, SPORADIC showers fell as I drove at dawn through Hout Bay, the fishing village where I lived, to the Hangberg Community Hall. The weather mirrored the mood: Uncertainty hovered over the country. It was Wednesday, April 27, 1994, and South Africa was voting in its first fully democratic elections.
I wore a laminated badge identifying me as “Domestic Election Observer #DO134OOOOO447.” After two long prep sessions, I was still nervous about the possibility of polling-station violence. Car bombs had exploded around the country in the last days before the election; two dozen people had been killed, hundreds more wounded. You wondered: Would South Africa see a peaceful transfer of power? Or would more bombs go off?
Twenty years have passed since that election; its anniversary gives us an opportunity to consider where South Africa has come from and where it is now.
I have a few imperishable memories of that day.
One is watching the first voter cast his ballot, witnessing that magical moment when real democracy became tangible. He was in his late teens or early 20s. Tired from the long wait, he rubbed his eyes. And an odd note: He wore brightly colored trousers.
In fundamental ways, the last 20 years have been a success story. Yet, South Africa suffers from corruption, inequality, poverty, and an alarming rate of HIV infection.
Outside, the line of people waiting in the spitting rain snaked along the street, around the corner, and down the hill. Almost everyone was silent. The few who talked did so in quiet voices. There was no singing, no jubilation, no drumming or toyi-toying. I asked people at the front how long they had been waiting. Two hours, they said.
The rest of that day and the next were the same. I watched thousands of people, young, old, black, white, come in and vote. The mood was solemn. After the riots and the rallies, the clenched fists in the sky, the bombs, the election itself was peaceful.
I think often of that young man who voted first. He is liberated in a way he never was before the vote — April 27 is now Freedom Day, a public holiday in South Africa — and that is a huge and important thing, a mighty psychological boost. State racism is gone; the laws are no longer deliberately written to oppress him. A new generation has come of age. South Africa’s fifth general election is coming in less than two weeks; 12 parties will appear the ballot. The country has a wonderfully enlightened constitution and a lot of bright people working toward change. In fundamental ways, the last 20 years have been a success story.
And yet, the hope and promise of April 27, 1994, has also dimmed considerably. South Africa suffers from corruption, inequality, poverty, and an alarming rate of HIV infection. Unemployment is double what it was 20 years ago. While I lived in Hout Bay, a backyard near my home became a squatter camp; today, more than 20,000 people live in shanties there.
Four years ago riots broke out near the Hangberg Community Hall after officials tore down some informal housing; the police fired rubber bullets and beat protesters.
The Oscar Pistorius trial will no doubt overshadow the elections next month. This era’s O.J. Simpson trial, it has laid bare South Africa’s culture of violence in a way that, say, Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer getting assaulted in a 2006 home invasion didn’t. It isn’t worse than in many other countries, but it is extremely discouraging against the backdrop of the recent past.
A few years ago, I spent a day with Zimbabwean migrants cowering in a Cape Town township church after a rash of xenophobic attacks, brutally ironic considering how Zimbabwe helped the African National Congress during its years in exile.
As South Africa moves into the post-Mandela era, it’s clear the struggle is far from over. It is a complicated, beautiful, stumbling, violent, amazing country. The glass, half full or half empty, still brims with hope and despair.