South African President Jacob Zuma (C) cuts a cake as
crowds gather to celebrate Freedom Day at the Union
Buildings in Pretoria. REUTERS/Skyler Reid
South Africa marked two decades of multi-racial democracy
on Sunday, still feeling the loss of Nelson Mandela and in
sombre mood just 10 days before elections which are expected to
keep the African National Congress (ANC) party in power.
Sunday's celebrations held a special poignancy as this is the
first "Freedom Day" since the passing of Mandela, the
anti-apartheid icon who died in December at the age of 95.
His name was evoked several times by South Africa's current
president Jacob Zuma during a ceremony attended by around
5,000 people under bright autumn skies outside of the ornate
Union Buildings, the seat of government.
"Our country continues to contribute to building a better
Africa and a better world, building on Madiba's legacy," Zuma
said, referring to Mandela by his clan name.
The ANC under Zuma has seen its star fade since the heady
days of the liberation struggle against white domination and
the one term in office served by Mandela, who devoted his
formidable charisma and charm to the cause of racial
A cartoon in the Sunday Independent newspaper depicted a
black female voter happily putting a check mark on Mandela's
picture in 1994 next to the letters ANC. In 2014, the same
woman angrily marks an X over Zuma's picture.
Critics say graft is widespread and that many ANC politicians
are more interested in self-enrichment than service.
"For most South Africans things are not as clear as they were
back in 1994," the Sunday World newspaper, which has a mostly
black readership, said in an editorial.
"Now we face the cold hard facts of corruption, condescension
and naked contempt from those in power."
Zuma himself is in the spotlight because of security
renovations worth over $20 million that were made on his
private rural homestead which included a chicken run and
South Africa's top anti-graft watchdog, the public protector,
said in a report last month that Zuma should pay back some of
the money spent on the upgrade.
MIXED BALANCE SHEET
Exactly 20 years ago, South Africans of all races voted in
the country's first democratic election, bringing the ANC to
power and making Mandela the country's first black president.
Those polls capped years of nail-biting political
negotiations and civil strife which pushed South Africa to
the edge of an all-out racial war. The fact that the election
was held at all was widely hailed as a miracle.
Bringing about the end of apartheid, the 1994 election also
ushered in two unbroken decades of ANC rule which is almost
certain to be extended when South Africans vote on May 7 in
the country's fifth all-race general election.
Poor black townships are seething with rage and marked by
frequent riots as the frustrated and unemployed protest
against the economy's failure to include them and the
government's failure to bring them basic services such as
water or power.
High rates of violent crime, unemployment and glaring income
disparities still mar the "Rainbow Nation". Still, polls
suggest the ANC will maintain its thumping majority.
The government can point to real successes, such as a
fast-growing black middle class and the laying of the
foundations of a welfare state with 16 million poor people,
about a third of the population, now receiving monthly income
Millions who previously had no proper roof over their head
have had houses built for them which are plugged into the
Zuma noted that 83 percent of households now had sanitation
compared to just half in 1994 and that the government had
built close to 3 million homes over the past 20 years.
"Most people have houses, electricity, and all those basic
things, the ANC has brought a lot of change in our lives,"
said Njabulo Shabalala, 29, an unemployed man who told
Reuters he planned to vote for the ruling party.
Pretoria was also conferring National Orders, its highest
honour, on Sunday to individuals who have made contributions
to the nation. Among those honoured is British musician Jerry
Dammers, who wrote the 1980s song "Free Nelson Mandela".