Spread the love

30 years ago, the election that changed South Africa

Photo: Agence France-Presse “A pivotal, defining moment in the history of South Africa,” and one of the most important elections of this century, said University of Montreal professor Mamoudou Gazibo, who specializes in African politics.

Stephanie Marin

Published at 0:00 Updated at 12:52 a.m.

  • Africa

30 years ago, South Africans created long lines, winding endlessly around polling stations. They showed how important and full of promise this first multiracial election was, particularly for all those who had been deprived of the right to vote until the last days of April 1994, including the vast majority of black and colored people in the country. According to several experts consulted by Le Devoir, this historic election which brought Nelson Mandela to the head of the country, three years after the end of the brutal regime of racial segregation of the apartheid, was one of those which most marked the 20th century.

“We are beginning a new era of hope, reconciliation and nation-building,” declared Nelson Mandela on April 27, 1994, just after checking the first ballot of his life.

For four days, his fellow citizens voted 63% for his party, the African National Congress (ANC). He was well ahead of the outgoing president, Frederik de Klerk, who received 20% of the votes.

“A pivotal, defining moment in the history of South Africa,” and one of the most important elections of this century, said University of Montreal professor Mamoudou Gazibo, specializing in African politics.

He recalls that this South African presidential election had repercussions beyond its borders, because it notably calmed a number of conflicts in neighboring countries, linked to apartheid. Its effect was “regional and global”.

Also read

  • He saw “Madiba” place his ballot in the ballot box

The election of Mandela, the first black president, was also “quite a symbol”, underlines Simplice Ayangma Bonoho, professor of African history at the University of Montreal: “A message of national unity to the South African people, a lesson in total liberation for the entire African continent and a master class in multiraciality to the rest of the world. »

A victory also for human rights, the country “riding off the chains of a regime dominated by race”, one of the last on the continent to oust the colonialism forcibly imposed by the privileged white minority, indicated David Pottie , professor of politics, governance and democracy at the Canadian Forces College. “It was a day of open doors and endless possibilities. »

Indeed, if most elections only result in the replacement of one ruling party by another, that of South Africa in 1994 completely changed the political landscape.

“It was the first time that all South Africans, regardless of race, could vote,” recalled University of Toronto political science professor Antoinette Handley, a native of South Africa. The election was “extraordinarily important”. What may seem mundane took on an extraordinary character that day: in a country where every aspect of daily life was governed by race, and where blacks and whites even had to use separate doors to enter the post office, “ seeing them rub shoulders in the voting lines was a symbol.”

“This election changed everything and, at the same time, changed nothing,” she laments, however. She explains that, although the political system was profoundly transformed by this universal vote, socio-economic inequalities between peoples persisted.

The legacy of 1994

A real democratic State has been established, underlines Mr. Gazibo “And the country has managed to remain united” — a very tangible legacy according to him.

Without forgetting that it is a democracy that has lasted, adds Dan O'Meara, professor in the Department of Political Science at UQAM, of South African origin and ex-member of the ANC .

Indeed, in the African countries colonized by France and England, post-colonization regimes did not survive long: several were overthrown by military coups or fell into a single party model, with a few exceptions, he explains. This is another reason why this election stood out: the oppression ended peacefully, “when the country could easily have descended into a racial civil war.” Under the diplomatic and peaceful leadership of Mandela and the ANC, the new regime was placed under the sign of reconciliation between peoples.

After becoming head of state, Mandela's priority was to ensure that the economy would not collapse, as was the case of several African countries after the great decolonization movement of the 1950s and 1960s. “Not wanting to repeat these mistakes,” he “reassured white South Africans that they were safe, welcome and even needed in this new South Africa,” so that 'They don't leave it with all their money and all their expertise,' explains Ms. Handley. This gave the government the economic resources to invest in crucial infrastructure, including the construction of housing for the black population.

In short, Nelson Mandela did not throw everyone out when he took power – even giving key responsibility for Finance to a white minister. Government institutions continued to function — a major achievement since basic services, such as water and electricity, now had to be provided to 44 million instead of four million residents, Pottie reports. .

The country's Constitution, promulgated in 1996, is another legacy, as are the new entities created, such as the Human Rights Commission and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.


But the compromises seen as saving at the time sowed the seeds of what is today a disappointment among many black South Africans towards Nelson Mandela. Many believe that he focused too much on reconciliation and not enough on racial justice. Today, economic inequalities are even more glaring, and blacks remain the most marginalized population, a consequence of the abuses of apartheid, recall all the experts consulted. They have the right to vote, but live in great poverty.

However, the core legacy of the election of “Madiba”, a non-racial democracy based on the rule of law, still persists thirty years later. The day he cast his first ballot, April 27, is now a national holiday, poetically named “Freedom Day.”

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116