They had to queue at the voting booths for hours. But they didn’t care. The journey that led them there had been so much longer: it was bloody, humiliating and tortuous too.

April 27th 1994 was the day of South Africa’s first democratic, multi-racial elections. The racial restrictions of the apartheid era had ended; black people were allowed to vote; the “Rainbow Nation” was born; Nelson Mandela was about to become the nation’s first black president.

In South Africa, today is known as “Freedom Day” — a national celebration of that almost unbearably joyous date. It was the day that black people were granted their dignity. And – as the name of the national holiday suggests — it is frequently proclaimed as the day that they got their freedom too.


That is a huge assumption.

Today, precisely seventeen years on, millions of South Africans will reflect on what that moment meant to them, and what progress has been made since. Many will conclude that their long walk to freedom did not end at the polling booth that day, as so many proclaimed at the time. Millions of black South Africans feel that they are still not truly free.

The restricting legacy of economic apartheid is the most obvious reason. In 2011, a black man and a white man may use the same bus, unlike in the days of minority white rule; but they will probably travel to very different destinations. They may share the same restaurants; but rarely does the black man dine, while the white man serves or cleans after him.

Some here proudly talk of how wealth might now be South Africa’s great division — no longer is it race that splits the population, they say. But black versus white, and poor versus rich — they mean pretty much the same thing in this land of great racial inequality.
It’s not just an issue of income: Recent violent protests in small towns have exposed popular frustration at the lack of basic services available to people in the poorest, black areas. Crowds have been ignited by the government’s apparent inability to provide water and electricity. Progress hasn’t come quickly enough, they say — and anger towards the authorities seems to be building.

At one protest earlier this month, a demonstrator was found dead shortly after apparently being beaten by police officers; the alleged attack was filmed and broadcast on national television. It allowed some observers to draw parallels between these disturbances and those of the apartheid years — for one, police brutality was a hallmark of that era.

Others say that the present-day protesters, just like the campaigners of yester-year, are fighting for freedom, of sorts.

After all, they ask, can you truly be described as being ‘free’ if you can vote on Election Day, but don’t have access to water to bathe your children on Election Night?
The poor, black population will have the chance to express their opinions on ‘service delivery’ at local government elections in May. Only a small minority of those who lived under apartheid will take that gift for granted.

It’s estimated that 24 political parties will contest. Around 40 percent of candidates will be women. These are figures that would not look out of place in the most mature democracies. But this is a young democracy, still taking tiny baby steps towards freedom.

The overturning of apartheid and the euphoria of the original “Freedom Day” is remembered warmly across South Africa today. But today’s politicians — and today’s activists — face a different struggle.

Without equality and basic services, there are those who celebrate democracy, but still long for true freedom.