PRETORIA, Apr 27 – South Africa on Sunday celebrates the 20th anniversary of its first ever all-race, democratic election that ended decades of sanctioned racial oppression under the apartheid system.
The day will be marked by street parades, speeches, prayers, music and military salutes and displays.
President Jacob Zuma leads the main festivities at the Union Buildings, the seat of government in Pretoria, where generations of apartheid leaders penned many of the racial laws that South Africa’s first black leader Nelson Mandela fought most of his life.
After the historic April 27, 1994, the day has been retained as a holiday and named Freedom Day.
For many South Africans it brings back sweet memories of the euphoria as black, Indian and mixed race voters stood in long meandering lines alongside whites to cast their first ballots.
Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu said the day felt like “falling in love”.
FW de Klerk, apartheid South Africa’s last president, described the day as “our proudest moment as South Africans”.
But 20 years on, the euphoria has died down and the country is counting both the gains and failures of the democratic era.
South Africa boasts among other things, one of the strongest constitutions in the world, an independent judiciary and is probably the most developed country on the continent.
But the successes are tainted by mismanagement and high level corruption blamed largely on the ANC-led administration.
Seen as a moral beacon of South Africa Tutu has described the two decades of freedom in South Africa as a “heck of an achievement”, but vows not to vote for the ANC in the upcoming polls.
This year’s anniversary of democracy coincides with South Africa’s fifth democratic election on May 7 where voters will cast ballots in a fiercely fought contest.
The ruling African National Congress is expected to retain power, despite anger over graft and glaring socio-economic disparities under its rule.
The ANC’s continued popularity is testimony of the fact that for many South Africans life feels incomparably better than it did under the white minority’s racist apartheid system.
Government has chosen to hold celebrations on Freedom Day under the theme “South Africa – a better place to live in”.
The economy has grown three-fold and government says it has built 3.7 million houses since the advent of democracy, giving millions of people their first modern homes.
Over 15 million of the population of 51 million receive government social grants.
The majority of blacks are largely free to live and work wherever they want and a new black middle class is burgeoning.
But economic inequality persists and has seen poor South Africans take their anger to the streets, protesting over a lack of basic services like water, sanitation, electricity and housing.
South Africa is ranked among the most unequal societies in the world.
As the ruling party faces its toughest test at the polls next month, only a third of the so-called “Born Frees” youths born on or after April 27, 1994 who are eligible to cast their votes for the first time this year bothered to register to vote.
In the run up to the polls, the ANC also faces a protest from a group of former party stalwarts led by former intelligence minister and communist party member Ronnie Kasrils who are campaigning that South Africans do not vote for the party which is credited with leading the fight against apartheid.
While hailing the successes of the past 20 years of freedom, De Klerk has joined the chorus chastising the ruling party for squandering its democratic inheritance through gross mismanagement and rampant corruption.
But 20 years after the birth of democracy, South Africa is still undergoing growing pains and has a long way to go.
“Democracy is not something which you make like making instant coffee, it is something to be built,” said University of Pretoria analyst Shadrack Gutto.