Did the “get out of jail” vote live up to the hype?

Elections are just around the corner in South Africa, and the BBC’s Nomsa Maseko looks back at how the country has changed since 30 crucial years of democracy and the end of the racist apartheid system.

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My mother told me that when she voted on April 27, 1994, it felt like a “get out of jail free card” and that she felt empowered.

She was 43 years old at the time, and like millions of other South Africans, she was voting for the first time.

It was the culmination of decades of resistance and armed struggle against racist and violent white minority rule.

Although I was too young to vote at the time, I was allowed to get ink on my finger by the election commission, but she and the disenfranchised black majority were free and ultimately understood what it meant to choose their own government.

The situation remained tense in the days before the election, with fears of political violence spreading. In the Kwa Tema area of ​​east Johannesburg where I lived, the smell of tear gas often filled the air.

People next to South African armored vehicle and Nelson Mandela poster - April 25, 2024People next to South African armored vehicle and Nelson Mandela poster - April 25, 2024

There were fears of violence in the run-up to the 1994 vote. [AFP]

Armored military vehicles passed by the house several times a day and late at night, and gunshots often rang out in the distance.

The afternoon before the big day, my friend and I were playing hopscotch in the street when a white truck pulled up loaded with Kuomintang T-shirts, balls, and flags.

This party came to power in 1948 and imposed legal segregation along racial lines, known as apartheid, which means “separation.”

Most of us had never owned a new ball before, so we were excited to be given one for free. But our excitement didn’t last long.

The “comrades”, anti-apartheid activists, confiscated them all, set the T-shirts on fire, and stabbed the balls with pocket knives.

We were scolded and told to “never accept anything from the enemy again.” We may have been sad, but we understood why.

The morning of the vote was eerily quiet. It was a sunny day, but I was filled with fear and anxiety.

The polling station was located across the street from our house at the Teachers College. Several blue and white “peace” flags were flying. Political party workers wearing colorful clothes went door to door urging people to vote.

The meandering line stretched for miles, with men and women of all ages lining up, raising their fists in the air and chanting “Sikullekile,” which means “We are free” in Zulu.

I felt somehow better knowing that I no longer had to look over my shoulder and hide every time a white police officer on a horse passed by.

I may still have a fear of German Shepherds. German Shepherds were used as sniffer dogs by the apartheid police and sometimes attacked us children for no reason while on patrol.

However, the Orlando West area of ​​Soweto township has many positive reminders of the liberation struggle and has even developed a tourism industry.

Sakumzi Makhubela runs a popular restaurant on the famous Vilakazi Street. nelson mandelawho became president when the African National Congress (ANC) won a landslide victory in 1994, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu also once lived there.

“Tourism has greatly benefited Vilakazi Street. Seeing tourists coming and going in awe of the current situation in South Africa, I decided to start selling groceries,” he said.

"The past 30 years have been a period of trial and error for our government, but we should commend them for the lessons they have learned.""Source: Sakhumzi Maqubela , Source Description: Soweto Restaurant Owner , Image: "The past 30 years have been a period of trial and error for our government, but we should commend them for the lessons they have learned.""Source: Sakhumzi Maqubela , Source Description: Soweto Restaurant Owner , Image:

“The past 30 years have been a trial and error for our government. We can celebrate what it has learned.”, Source: Sakhumzi Maqubela, Source Description: Soweto Restaurant Owner, image:

Makhubela compared his efforts over the past 30 years to those of the country’s leaders.

“The last 30 years have been a period of trial and error for our government, and we can congratulate them on the lessons they have learned.

“I created 500 jobs here. I sleep better knowing my efforts made a difference.”

The early years of democracy were promising. After Mandela’s first term, Thabo Mbeki won the next election. Civil society flourished, as did a free and vocal press.

However, many feel that the honeymoon is definitely over for the ANC. The ANC remains in power, mired in allegations of corruption and infighting. The country faces high levels of unemployment and violent crime, and many people continue to suffer from a lack of basic services such as water and electricity.

The benefits of democracy enjoyed by Mr Makbela do not extend beyond the area around Vilakazi Street.

In Kliptown, just a 10-minute drive away, the streets are lined with portable toilets that are rarely cleaned or emptied.

Street scene in Kliptown, South Africa - 2024Street scene in Kliptown, South Africa - 2024

Kliptown has seen little development in the past 30 years. [BBC]

There are no schools nearby, but the residential area is famous for its bars, so there are many shebeens. Young mothers are struggling to make ends meet.

“Thirty years of democracy means nothing to me. There’s nothing to celebrate,” said Tasneema Sylvester, sitting outside her hut wearing a sun hat, black jeans and an old red T-shirt. said.

“I’m not going to bother voting this year because I don’t see anything that the ANC claims to have done,” said the 38-year-old mother of three.

“I don’t have a job, I don’t have clean running water or a toilet. I’m angry and hopeless.”

Sylvester’s story reflects a broader truth in South Africa today: the vast divide between the haves and the have-nots.

And the people of Kliptown are deeply connected to the liberation struggle and their own, given that the 1955 Freedom Charter, a document drafted by those fighting apartheid that set out a vision for a democratic South Africa, was signed here. I feel that connection is often overlooked.

“We have been ignored for too long. It is very sad that none of the 10 articles of the Freedom Charter have been implemented in this region,” said Ntokozo Dube, a local tourist guide.

Ntokozo Dube reflected in the Freedom Charter Memorial in Kliptown, South Africa - 2024Ntokozo Dube reflected in the Freedom Charter Memorial in Kliptown, South Africa - 2024

Ntokozo Dube shows people around the Freedom Charter monument in Kliptown.The principles of the Freedom Charter are engraved in bronze. [BBC/Thuthuka Zondi]

For political analyst Tessa Dooms, there are difficult questions to consider on the 30th anniversary.

“It’s clear that people don’t feel like we’ve fundamentally changed the structure of our country,” she says.

“There are some obvious things that are still very similar to the past…high levels of inequality still exist and have even increased in times of democracy.”

This crisis is exemplified by hundreds of trained doctors protesting in major cities across the country because they cannot find work.

Dr. Mumtaz Emeran-Thomas making teaDr. Mumtaz Emeran-Thomas making tea

Mumtaz Emeran Thomas is a qualified doctor but can’t find a job. [BBC]

“It’s a shame that South Africans desperately need health care and our health system is broken, leaving 800 qualified doctors at home.” said Dr. Mumtaz Emeran Thomas, who makes a living through freelance work unrelated to medicine. Her medical skills.

Young people in particular are demanding change and may abandon any loyalty they feel to the ANC in favor of democracy.

Some people are so disillusioned that they say they don’t vote at all.

But the vast majority of people who lived through apartheid, like my mother, can’t forget its benefits and still believe in the power of the ballot box.

And I’m scheduled to go to work on May 29, the seventh general election under democratic rule, and she’s taking her six-year-old daughter to the same Kwa Tema polling station where she voted in 1994. You will be lined up in

You can watch Nomusa Maseko’s documentary Africa: The battle for the ballot box on the BBC Africa YouTube channel.

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