About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Part 1

Padraig O' Malley

On 26 April 1994, South Africans of every color went to the polls to vote in South Africa's first non-racial election.

With 63 per cent of the vote, the African National Congress (ANC) savored the fruits of its victory, vindication of the titanic struggle it had waged for the recognition of black people as people, equal in all respects to their white countrymen. .

On this, the third anniversary of the new South Africa's mirabile dictu, it behooves us to ask how far South Africa has come, and whether it is making good on the promise of democratic transformation it so earnestly promulgated and so ruthlessly fought for.

Transitions by their nature are untidy. The expectations so easily excited during the emotion-filled campaigns that precede the first democratic elections are rarely fulfilled. And so it has come to pass in South Africa. The euphoria is gone. Disaffection has displaced enthusiasm, and although disillusionment has not yet reached the threshold of ugliness, it threatens to undermine the ethos that is a prerequisite for the incubation of a democratic culture.

Despite a democratic parliament and a plethora of democratic institutions in the making, a government that prides itself on transparency, a president whose moral completeness overwhelms lesser mortals, a constitution and bill of rights that are among the most enlightened in the world, a constitutional court that has already flexed its muscle in the exercise of its constitutional mandate, there is a malaise among the people that things are not quite going the way they should -- not that they believe they are going in the wrong direction, but the frustration and disappointment with promises not kept has bred skepticism and a creeping cynicism, that if unaddressed, does not augur well for the future.

Much of the unease can be directly attributed to what amounts to a virtual collapse in law and order, a proliferation of violent crime, that has unnerved the country, put its leaders on the defensive in the face of accusations that it cannot deliver on the first responsibility of government, and added to the unstated assumptions of intolerance that poison the well of racial reconciliation.

South Africa is, according to most yardsticks, the most violent country in the world. The rate of crime has increased at double the rate of population over the last four years. At the end of 1996 there were approximately 160,000 unsolved murders -- over 100,000 more than in 1988. South Africa, with an average of 45 persons murdered per 100,000 people each year -- 800% higher than the world average of 5.5 people per 100,000 -- is the world's most murderous country. In the United States, the comparable murder rate is eight per 100,000.

Figures, of course, fall short of giving any understanding of the predatory dimensions of the crime-levels that infest communities across South Africa. Yet, the figures convey a frightening sense of the underlying malevolence: Close to 750,000 violent crimes, 100,000 car-hijacking (increasing at the rate of 30% a year), and 62,000 armed robberies are reported to the police every year. In other words, an average of 99 serious crimes are committed every hour - one every 35 seconds, a rape every 83 seconds, an armed robbery every seven minutes.

There is an explicit recognition that the country's frightening rate of crime and lawless image is deterring foreign investment, and that unless something is done with the stamp of commanding authoritativeness to bring it under control, the inward investment crucial to a sustained economic take-off will not materialize.

What is happening is not untypical of what happens when the lid of repression is lifted in any society which has been governed through repression. "You had an illegitimate government," says Lloyd Vogelman, director of the University of Witswatersrand's Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, "that could not provide for any kind of moral authority over why there should not be crime. People felt that they could justify crime on the basis of politics, but frequently the kind of crime carried out in the name of politics was just basic thuggery."

When the exuberance that follows political emancipation peters out in disappointment as it invariably does, the pent-up anger, free at last tro implode upon itself, sweeps everything aside, destroying whatever lies in its path. And to a very large extent, crime, brutal and casual, is a simple and logical outcome. Indeed, for South Africa, caught between the contradictions of so many countervailing worlds, survival is a message of success.

Although most aspects of daily life remain damningly the same -- teeming townships, the inescapable sense of being smothered by the chaotic physical closeness of people to each other, and squatter camps that continue to proliferate with blind randomness--the government has had its successes, which deserve due acknowledgment.

Some four million school children are fed every day as part of a school-feeding program; there is free medical care for children and pregnant women; free education for Grade One children; and no child can be turned away from school, simply because he cannot afford school fees. Over one million homes have been electrified and 700,000 receive clean water, itself a revolution of extraordinary dimensions, if only for its health-care repercussions. There are also increasing numbers of health-care clinics, especially in rural areas, and further dramatic expansion of health-care facilities are planned. Some 250,000 houses have been built, although the backlog continues to grow.

But the problems remain monumental and the perceived inability of the government to deliver three years into its stewardship is raising doubts, and not just among whites, about the government's ability to govern. Some 60 per cent of Africans still have no electricity; only 20 per cent have a water tap inside their homes; 16 per cent have no toilet of any kind. Nearly two-thirds of all African households (and more than three-quarters of African households in rural areas) have monthly incomes below the minimum living level of $200. In contrast, two-thirds of white households have monthly incomes in excess of $450.

If South Africa is to make the miracle of 1994 a reality for the millenium, it must find the antidotes to these two social viruses -- the appearance of permanent inequities and the increasing disrespect for the rule of law. Otherwise, democracy will always be the step-child of the people, not the democracy of "We, the people."

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.