"How can you describe falling in love?"
“How can you describe falling in love?”
That is how retired archbishop Desmond Tutu this week recalled voting in South Africa’s first all-race elections on April 27, 1994, an exultant moment when the nation’s majority blacks and other oppressed groups broke the shackles of white rule.
But as South Africa marks the 20th anniversary of multiracial democracy on Sunday, the achievements and soaring expectations of what was dubbed a “rainbow nation” have been tempered by a different inequality — the yawning gulf between rich and poor.
This uneven narrative will shape elections on May 7 likely to see the ruling African National Congress — which led the fight against apartheid and has dominated politics since its demise — return to power with a smaller majority, reflecting a growing discontent with the party.
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One election candidate is Julius Malema, the expelled head of the ANC’s youth league and now leader of an upstart party that wants to redistribute wealth. Malema, who wears a red beret on the campaign trail, has criticized the government as elitist, saying real freedom will only come when the poor own a fair share of the land.
Despite notable gaps in service, South Africa has delivered housing, water and electricity to millions since 1994 and boasts a widely admired constitution and an active civil society, but struggles with high unemployment, one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime and is still working through issues of race and identity.
“It’s nice to celebrate that we are here,” said Gundo Mmbi, a student at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. But she said the 20th anniversary of democracy is also a time to reflect on the need for change in South Africa, citing “really crazy” corruption and a lack of opportunity for the poor.
“It’s not just about your color anymore,” she said “Discrimination has gone beyond.”
South African officials will highlight gains of the last 20 years on Sunday at the Union Buildings, a government complex in Pretoria that was once the seat of white power. The government is launching a slick television ad that depicts neatly stacked shipping containers on a pier to symbolize South Africa’s international trade, housing developments, gleaming infrastructure such as the high-speed Gautrain transit system, and SKA, an international project to build a radio telescope, based in South Africa and Australia, that will observe the sky.
It all falls under the official slogan: “South Africa — A Better Place to live in.”
But it is not better for many South Africans who remain jobless and without even basic services like running water, sewage and electricity.
In an echo of the apartheid era, many cities feature crowded clusters of shacks, and lush suburbs with homes behind high walls topped by electric fencing.
The income gap can be stark. In Johannesburg, beggars stand at many intersections in affluent areas. This week, one black man stood before a passing stream of Mercedes, BMWs and other luxury cars, holding a sign that read: “Help me please. I’m starving. Anything I can accept. God bless you.”
On Wednesday, President Jacob Zuma spoke to members of the Afrikaner community, which dominated South Africa during apartheid, about the need “to heal the divisions of the past” but also referred to white domination of the economy, a result of efforts to ensure a smooth power transition 20 years ago.
“Although progress has been made to de-racialize the ownership, management and control of the economy, we are far from closing the gap,” Zuma said, adding that the income of the average of white household is six times that of the average “African” household.
Amid the persistent economic disparities, Zuma has been criticized for having more than $20 million in state funds spent on upgrading his private rural home. The state watchdog agency concluded that he inappropriately benefited and should pay back some of the money.
Still, many black families have moved into the formerly all-white suburbs. And where just a few years ago trendy restaurants were notable for having an all-white clientele and all-black service staff, they are today much more integrated.
A Goldman Sachs report said that since 1994, GDP has increased nearly threefold to $400 billion, noted a “dramatic” rise in the middle class and an increase in the number of needy people receiving monthly cash grants from 2.4 million to 16.1 million. But it also cited threats to growth including a lack of skilled workers, persistent labor unrest and a decline of productivity in mining, a pillar of the economy.
The government says 86 percent of South African households now have access to electricity, compared to just over half in 1994, and that more than 95 percent of households have access to a basic supply of clean water, compared to about 50 percent 20 years ago. Sanitation has also improved, though officials acknowledge that the “bucket” toilet system and reliance on fetching water from streams is still prevalent in some areas.
The accomplishments started with the eradication of a system that denied basic rights to most of the population, with a suffocating combination of violence and racist laws that made South Africa an international pariah. Images of long, curling lines of South Africans waiting peacefully to vote in 1994 inspired the world.
The fact that South Africa can even celebrate 20 years of democracy is “a heck of an achievement,” said Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his opposition to apartheid.
“We’ve notched up a very significant milestone,” he told reporters in Cape Town, contrasting South Africa’s stability with places like Syria and Ukraine. Tutu said, however, that he would not vote for the ANC, believing it had failed to help many struggling South Africans who were embraced by the inclusive vision of Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid icon who became president in 1994 and died in December at the age of 95.
“This is a country where we shouldn’t read stories of a 6-year-old falling into a latrine hole,” Tutu said in a reference to a boy who drowned earlier this year after falling into an open pit latrine in a school in Limpopo province.
And sometimes current events can quickly trigger memories of the past, when protests against white rule were brutally suppressed by police firing guns and swinging truncheons.
The police shooting of striking miners at Lonmin’s platinum mine in Marikana in 2012, leaving 34 dead, shocked South Africans and drew comparisons to police shootings in Sharpeville in 1960 and other notorious incidents.
“There’s enough happening in our country for us to feel grave unsettlement and worry about where we are going,” said Edwin Cameron, a Constitutional Court justice. “But there’s also the necessity of knowing what we have,” including a constitution with strong protections for human rights and a population that is skeptical toward power.
“That,” Cameron said, “is what makes our country so hopeful.”