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South Africa remembers an historic election every April 27, Freedom Day

People queue to cast their votes In Soweto, South Africa April 27, 1994, in the country's first all-race elections. South Africans celebrate "Freedom Day" every April 27.
Denis Farrell
/
AP
People queue to cast their votes In Soweto, South Africa April 27, 1994, in the country's first all-race elections. South Africans celebrate "Freedom Day" every April 27.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — South Africans celebrate their "Freedom Day" every April 27, when they remember their country's pivotal first democratic election in 1994 that announced the official end of the racial segregation and oppression of apartheid.

Saturday is the 30th anniversary of that momentous vote, when millions of Black South Africans, young and old, decided their own futures for the first time, a fundamental right they had been denied by a white minority government.

The first all-race election saw the previously banned African National Congress party win overwhelmingly and made its leader, Nelson Mandela, the country's first Black president four years after he was released from prison.

Here's what you need to know about that iconic moment and a South Africa that's changing again 30 years on:

A turning point

The 1994 election was the culmination of a process that began four years earlier when F.W. de Klerk, the last apartheid-era president, shocked the world and his country by announcing that the ANC and other anti-apartheid parties would be unbanned.

Mandela, the face of the anti-apartheid movement, was released from prison nine days later, setting him on the road to becoming South Africa's first Black leader.

Then African National Congress leader, Nelson Mandela casts his vote April 27, 1994 near Durban, South Africa, in the country's first all-race elections.
John Parkin / AP
/
AP
Then African National Congress leader, Nelson Mandela casts his vote April 27, 1994 near Durban, South Africa, in the country's first all-race elections.

South Africa needed years to prepare and was still on a knife-edge in the months and weeks before the election because of ongoing political violence, but the vote — held over four days between April 26 and April 29 to accommodate the large numbers who turned out — went ahead successfully.

A country that had been shunned and sanctioned by the international community for decades because of apartheid emerged as a fully-fledged democracy.

Heroes

Nearly 20 million South Africans of all races voted, compared with just 3 million white people in the last general election under apartheid in 1989.

Associated Press photographer Denis Farrell's iconic aerial photograph of people waiting patiently for hours in long, snaking queues in fields next to a school in the famed Johannesburg township of Soweto captured the determination of millions of Black South Africans to finally be counted. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

"South Africa's heroes are legend across the generations," Mandela said as he proclaimed victory. "But it is you, the people, who are our true heroes."

Apartheid falls

The ANC's election victory ensured that apartheid was finally dismantled and a new Constitution was drawn up and became South Africa's highest law, guaranteeing equality for everyone no matter their race, religion or sexuality.

Apartheid, which began in 1948 and lasted for nearly half-a-century, had oppressed Black and other non-white people through a series of race-based laws. Not only did the laws deny them a vote, they controlled where Black people lived, where they were allowed to go on any given day, what jobs they were allowed to hold and who they were allowed to marry.

30 years on

Current South African President Cyril Ramaphosa — a protege of Mandela — will lead Saturday's 30th anniversary Freedom Day celebrations at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the seat of government.

A crowd of people sing and give peace signs during a lunchtime peace march in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa, Jan. 27, 1994 ahead of the country's all race elections.
Denis Farrell / AP
/
AP
A crowd of people sing and give peace signs during a lunchtime peace march in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa, Jan. 27, 1994 ahead of the country's all race elections.

The ANC has been in government ever since 1994 and while it is still recognized for its central role in freeing South Africans, it is no longer celebrated in the same way as it was in the hope-filled aftermath of that election.

South Africa in 2024 has deep socio-economic problems, none more jarring than the widespread and severe poverty that still overwhelmingly affects the Black majority. The official unemployment rate is 32%, the highest in the world, while it's more than 60% for young people aged 15-24.

Millions of Black South Africans still live in neglected, impoverished townships and informal settlements on the fringes of cities in what many see as a betrayal of the heroes Mandela referred to. South Africa is still rated as one of the most unequal countries in the world.

The ANC is now largely being blamed for the lack of progress in improving the lives of so many South Africans, even if the damage of decades of apartheid wasn't going to be easy to undo.

An election poster, with President Cyril Ramaphosa atop a pole in Soweto, South Africa, Monday, April 22, 2024.
Themba Hadebe / AP
/
AP
An election poster, with President Cyril Ramaphosa atop a pole in Soweto, South Africa, Monday, April 22, 2024.

Another pivotal election?

The 30th anniversary of 1994 falls with another possibly pivotal election as a backdrop. South Africa will hold its seventh national vote since the end of apartheid on May 29, with all the opinion polls and analysts predicting that the ANC will lose its parliamentary majority in a new landmark.

The ANC is still expected to be the largest party and will likely have to enter into complicated coalitions with smaller parties to remain part of the government, but the overriding picture that is expected is that more South Africans will vote for other parties in a national election for the first time in their democracy.

South Africans still cherish the memory of Mandela and the elusive freedom and prosperity he spoke about in 1994. But the majority of them now appear ready to look beyond the ANC to attain it.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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