South Africa Celebrates 30 Years of Freedom Amidst Inequality and a Looming Election

South Africa will celebrate 30 years of independence this Saturday, April 27, as the country commemorates the day in 1994 when millions voted in South Africa’s first democratic elections.

Every year on April 27, South Africans celebrate Freedom Day, which commemorates the end of apartheid, a cruel system of racial inequality.

Nonki Kunene, 72, walks through the corridors of Thabisang Primary School in Soweto, South Africa, recalling the thrill she and many others felt 30 years ago when they cast their first ballot.

Kunene stood in huge lines at this school on April 27, 1994, to vote in South Africa’s first democratic elections following years of white minority rule that denied Black South Africans basic rights.

Like many things in South Africa, the school has evolved, and what was once a school hall has been converted into multiple classrooms.

“I somehow wish we could go back to that day, because of how excited I was and the things that happened thereafter,” said Kunene, referring to Nelson Mandela becoming the country’s first ever Black president and the introduction of a new Constitution.

It afforded all South Africans equal rights, abolishing the racially discriminative system of apartheid.

Suffering under apartheid

For many who experienced apartheid, the suffering of those years remains etched in their collective memory.

“I cannot forget how we suffered at the hands of whites. In the city at night, there were white bikers with hair like this (describing a mohawk-like hairstyle) who would brutally assault a Black person if they saw them walking on a pavement. Those white boys were cruel.”

″If they saw you walking on the pavement, you would be assaulted so badly and left for dead,” said 87-year-old Lily Makhanya, whose late husband died while working in the anti-apartheid movement’s underground structures.

For Makhanya and many others who braved the long lines to vote 30 years ago, April 27, 1994, marked a turning point from a terrible past to a thriving future.

Today’s challenges

South Africa will celebrate 30 years of freedom and democracy on Saturday, but much of the joy and hope that marked that period has faded as Africa’s most developed economy faces a slew of challenges.

These include rising inequality, as the country’s Black majority continues to live in poverty and has an unemployment rate of more than 32%.

According to government data, more than 16 million South Africans rely on monthly welfare assistance to survive.

Public rallies on South African streets have become widespread as residents criticize the ruling African National Congress’ failure to provide job opportunities and basic utilities such as water and electricity.

An electricity crisis that has resulted in power outages that are wreaking havoc on the country’s economy has exacerbated the party’s problems, with businesses and homes often forced to go without power for up to 12 hours a day.

A country of grim contrasts

Sandton, an affluent Johannesburg suburb with gorgeous skyscrapers and expensive residences, exemplifies the economic prosperity experienced by a small percentage of the country’s population.

However, the township of Alexandra, just a few kilometers from Sandton, is a stark picture of the country’s predominantly poor Black majority, with sewage from busted pipes flowing on the streets and uncollected waste piling up on pavements.

Such paradoxes abound throughout the country’s biggest cities, including the capital Pretoria and Cape Town, and will remain at the heart of what is expected to be one of the country’s most hotly contested elections.


For the first time since 1994, surveys show that the ANC may earn less than 50% of the national vote, perhaps losing power if it does not form a coalition with some minor parties.

President Cyril Ramaphosa will address the nation on Freedom Day in Pretoria on Saturday.

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