South Africans marked the 20th anniversary of the end of white minority rule today against the backdrop of rising joblessness, strikes and violent street protests.
The government staged a rally and prayer service to celebrate Freedom Day, when South Africans of all races voted for the first time in 1994. Under apartheid most black citizens were stripped of their land, denied decent schooling and confined to doing menial labor, while interracial relationships were outlawed.
“1994 ushered in a new era of hope for all South Africans, a hope that the lives of the people would improve and that South Africa would be a better country than it had ever been,” President Jacob Zuma said in a speech at the Union Building in the capital, Pretoria. “Our freedom was not free. It came about through blood, sweat and tears, that is why we must defend it at all cost.”
Since the African National Congress government took power under Nelson Mandela two decades ago, it has quelled political violence, scrapped discriminatory laws and provided housing, welfare grants and clean water to millions of impoverished citizens. That progress hasn’t been enough though, with more than 10 million people still lacking proper shelter and 24 percent of the workforce unemployed.
Today’s milestone comes amid a three-month strike that’s crippled the world’s biggest platinum industry and a surge in violent street protests. There were 214 strikes and protests over the lack of proper sanitation, housing and local government services in the first quarter of this year and 714 last year, according to the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies.
Zuma has become a lightning rod for discontent. He was jeered in front of world leaders at the December memorial service for Mandela, and again three weeks later at a soccer match, as well as on several occasions while campaigning for May 7 elections.
Critics say the ANC no longer governs on behalf of the people. They point to the police shooting of 34 striking workers in August 2012 at a Lonmin Plc mine in Marikana, northwest of Johannesburg, and allegations by the nation’s anti-graft ombudsman that Zuma unduly benefited from 215 million rand ($20 million) in state spending to renovate his private home at Nkandla that included a swimming pool, an amphitheater and a cattle enclosure. Zuma denies any wrongdoing.
The government has made headway in addressing some of apartheid’s worst deprivations, building 2.8 million homes for the poor and increasing access to water and electricity.
The proportion of the 53 million people living below the extreme poverty line of 290 rand a month fell to 31.3 percent last year from 41.1 percent in 1994 as the number of welfare grant recipients swelled to 16 million from 2.7 million, according to official data.
“For 20 years millions of South Africans have been able to lead their lives and pursue their dreams in conditions of relative peace, personal dignity and harmony,” F.W. de Klerk, the nation’s last white president, said in a statement on April 25. “Despite all our challenges, South Africa today is a much better and fairer country than it was before 27 April 1994.”