Is South Africa’s twenty years of democracy and freedom next year truly a cause for celebration? This question will be debated across the length and breadth of the country by citizen as we reflect on the journey we have travelled since 1994.
As government we say there is cause to celebrate and the country will be joined by brothers and sisters across the African continent and rest of the world who will re-tell the South African story. Debate has already started and there will be many narratives on the democratic achievements and challenges still facing us.
However, for a better and informed discussion on this journey, it is important that we reflect on the 20 years of a peaceful and functioning democracy within a broader historical context of where we came from and where we are heading.
Taking this perspective into account, no one can argue that we have a successful story to tell. South Africa is undoubtedly a better country than it was in 1994. It is recognised as an international symbol of peace and social justice and the world still marvels at our transition from pariah state to a much-admired democracy.
Nearly 20 years since the country’s emergence from the gloom of apartheid we remain committed to the continued development and prosperity.
The government’s commitment to peace and democracy has never faltered and Nelson Mandela’s words still ring true to many of us: “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”
Many may have forgotten how tense things were in the run-up to our democratic transition when there were forces hell-bent on seeing the new South Africa fail. The image of right-wing protesters storming the Kempton Park World Trade Centre in 1993 in an attempt to derail the multiparty negotiations to end the apartheid system, still burns brightly in the back of my mind.
However, these and other tactics aimed at bringing the democratic process to a halt were always doomed to fail. Once all South Africans got a taste of freedom and democracy, it gained an unstoppable momentum. Our enduring democracy remains one of our crowning achievements.
The peace and stability that have prevailed in the country over the past 19 years remains intact. We have also laid a firm foundation for our representative democracy, based on the will of the people, and we continue to improve on it.
Our citizens enjoy the freedom to choose the manner in which the state is governed through regular elections and other forms of public participation. This is in sharp contrast to life before 1994; the apartheid government denied the majority that and they had no say in how they were governed.
Next year South Africa will hold its fifth democratic national and provincial elections and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has called on all South Africans to register for elections this weekend – 9 and 10 November. Our thriving multiparty democracy allows all registered political parties to freely participate in elections every five years.
Gone are the days where Parliament was supreme and untouchable; it can no longer pass unjust laws or those that are inconsistent with the constitution. Our independent judiciary has over the past years repealed a number of laws that sought to denigrate black people, and Parliament replaced them with laws that are just and fair – a huge change from the way things were done under apartheid.
It was impossible for a judge before 1994 to challenge the fairness of the law passed by Parliament because it could make any law it wanted, even it infringed on basic human rights and freedoms. Today we are all equal before the law. No one can be discriminated against on the basis of race, culture, language, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or any other ground.
All of these changes and milestones are a testament that we have a lot to be grateful for as we approach the 20 of Years of Freedom. By celebrating our functioning democracy we are not saying there are no remaining challenges or that everything is picture-perfect. Instead, we acknowledge that we still have a long way to go but are steadfast in our determination to ensure a better life for all.
Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS)