South African Election : 10 Years Later

Nation marches on, a work in progress

Milestone: A decade after its first free ballot, South Africa continues as a fascinating experiment in democracy.

April 25, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The date in the passport looks prescient - April 27, 1993, stamped at Johannesburg's Jan Smuts airport when I first entered South Africa. No one knew it then, but that was exactly one year before the country's first democratic election.

It has been a decade since that vote transformed South Africa from one of the most reviled nations on Earth to one of its most admired, thanks to the first black president, Nelson Mandela, and the dignified way he brought about a revolution.

Ten years later, South Africa is no longer a morality play. But it remains a fascinating experiment, because of its unique history, and because it is one of the few countries - the United States is another - trying to mold a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multilingual democracy. In the post-Cold War era, most countries divided ethnically - the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia. South Africa struggled to unite its disparate groups.

Certainly, a decade along the democratic path, the country is beset by problems. Crime and AIDS are rampant. Unemployment is widespread. Economic disparities are growing. But about two weeks ago, South Africa held its third election, by all accounts a free and fair vote. It attracted little attention as elections have become accepted and expected. That is no small feat.

The kind of violence that threatened to cancel that first vote in 1994 was virtually nonexistent this time. Voting participation, while high by U.S. standards, was down. Democracy is no longer the magical talisman of a decade ago. Elections are a necessary ingredient in South Africa's success, but not the only one. That, too, is a sign of progress.

In April 1993, many feared that the first election would never be held. In the three years since the last white prime minister, F.W. De Klerk, had freed Mandela from his 27 years of imprisonment, the country had been on a bumpy ride toward reform, constantly jolted by violence.

There were two deaths of leaders of Mandela's African National Congress that month. Chris Hani, the popular leader of South Africa's Communist Party, was assassinated. Many feared that this might trigger widespread unrest. De Klerk's government took the unprecedented step of letting Mandela address the country over the government-owned television stations, to call for peace. Relative calm prevailed.

Then ANC stalwart Oliver Tambo died at 75. Mandela and Tambo had essentially founded the modern ANC in the 1940s. Together - Mandela in prison, Tambo in exile - they kept the faith for a half-century. On the verge of realizing the dream, Tambo died. At his funeral in the huge soccer stadium near Soweto, there was much talk of Moses never reaching the promised land.

A week later, the farming community of Pochefstroom held a gathering of about 10,000 Boers, the white Afrikaner farmers whose ancestors had chafed under British rule. When their National Party took charge of the government in 1948, it installed apartheid.

Emergence of Viljoen

That's the shorthand history. Though English-speaking South Africans blamed apartheid on Afrikaners, the British laid the foundations for South Africa's racial separation during decades of colonial rule. Apartheid had made them wealthy, and, in the secrecy of the voting booth, they helped sustain it.

In Pochefstroom, Constand Viljoen emerged as a leader of the Afrikaner movement. Once the popular head of the South African Defense Forces - an institution rivaled only by the country's rugby team for prestige among Afrikaners - Viljoen turned out to be a crucial figure. His rhetoric that day was moderate, a tone he maintained, keeping most Afrikaners in the electoral process while waging a rhetorical fight for a separate Afrikaner homeland.

There was a bloodier ethnic war going on, and one of its battlegrounds was Kathlehong, the troubled black township east of Johannesburg. The boundaries were clear - Zulus living in the hostels, large dormitories built for black workers, the rest of the blacks living in the township houses. When those boundaries were violated, violence erupted. Scores died.

A Zulu guard at the entrance to a hostel spoke of his contempt for Mandela, saying the Zulus did not need such a newcomer because they had their king who traced his lineage back over centuries. This showed the depth of the rift between Mandela's ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party, whose leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, exploited Zulu nationalism to build his strength.

Not black and white

This was a much more complex story than many realized. People in the United States saw South Africa as an extension of America's racial divide and civil rights movement.

On one level, it was. But there were many more levels. It wasn't just black and white. It was Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and Pedi. It was Afrikaner and English. It was the mixed-race coloreds, the fascinating Jewish community, the Indians of the eastern coastal cities, the Portuguese, the indigenous Bushmen.

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