“This is for all South Africans, an unforgettable occasion. It is the realisation of hopes and dreams that we have cherished over decades. The dreams of a South Africa which represents all South Africans. It is the beginning of a new era. We have moved from an era of pessimism, division, limited opportunities, turmoil and conflict. We are starting a new era of hope, reconciliation and nation building. We sincerely hope that by the mere casting of a vote the results will give hope to all South Africans … ” said Nelson Mandela in a speech at Ohlange High School in Inanda, KwaZulu-Natal after he cast his vote on 27 April 1994.
This date marks a significant time in South African history as the day that the first nonracial elections took place. This moment was a culmination of years of struggle against the apartheid regime. The milestone was ushered in by seemingly endless negotiations, unbanning of liberation movements, the release of political prisoners, the return of cadres from exile, and the reversal of apartheid laws that led to the introduction of a new interim constitution.
There is no doubt that this day represented new hope for many South Africans, especially the oppressed black majority. It was characterised as a day of empowerment and promised a better future. The collective efforts were celebrated amid a strong feeling of new possibilities in determining the future of a South Africa free from racial oppression.
Of South Africa’s 22.7-million eligible voters, 19.7-million voted in the 1994 national election. The voter turnout of 86.9% remains the largest turnout in our 27-year-old democratic dispensation. Despite the fact that the elections themselves had challenges including threats of violence, accusations of cheating, technical difficulties at the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) and negotiated political compromises that saw Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) claiming KwaZulu-Natal and the 20% share to the National Party that won them the deputy president position, with all things considered, a resounding political victory and progress for many South Africans was achieved.
The 1994 elections, without a doubt, represented a great sight of active citizenship, the importance of elections and their effect on the future of the oppressed majority.
Throughout our 27 years of democracy, however, we have seen a drastic drop in voter participation. From the 1999 election to now, fewer people who are eligible to vote participate in elections and many do not even see the need to register to vote. The national and provincial elections in 2019 indicated that South Africa had 31.4-million eligible people to vote, which is a 38% increase from 1994, but the voter turnout was 65.9%, a 21% drop from 1994. The highest political participation through voting and participating in elections seen in 1994 has evaporated into thin air.
One might feel that this comparison is unfair because of the different times in history. Back then the concrete political conditions were much more pressing and there was desperation from the majority to ensure an end to the apartheid regime. Even though the majority cherishes our hard-won democracy, on this anniversary of the first nonracial elections, we must ask ourselves why our voter turnout and active citizenship has died.
It has now been clear for some time that the conditions of living have deteriorated for many South Africans since 1994. Many have become poorer, unemployment and service delivery have been at their worst. Many communities remain without access to water, electricity and housing. Education and health services have been in crisis for decades now and there seem to be no programmes set up to address the problems.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed an immunocompromised population among both young and old, townships and rural areas with no essential services to fight Covid-19, inadequate education and health systems and it has accelerated the plunge into further poverty of millions. There is increased violence against women and children, xenophobia has been on the rise and townships remain violent spaces – the list is endless.
Our hopes and dreams have dissipated
It is no secret that millions of South African have lost hope in the elections and political processes of the country to repair conditions of despair, poverty and unemployment. The hopes and dreams that we saw in 1994 are long gone and all that is left are the commemorations of the significant day and the dreams it once carried.
The mere act of casting a vote has long lost its significance of “giving hope, reconciliation and nation building”. Thinking back to former president Mandela’s words we have moved back to the era of pessimism, division, limited opportunities, turmoil and conflict. As political parties gear up for this year’s local government elections, are these conditions not reason enough to revert to active citizenship inspired by 1994?