Every year on 27 April, South Africa celebrates Freedom Day in commemoration of the first democratic elections held on that day in 1994. This day is important because it marked an end to over three hundred years of colonialism and an apartheid regime that stretched over five decades. Now, every five years, South Africans above the age of 18 flock to voting stations nationwide to cast their votes for their next president. This is a constitutional right that every race in the democratic South Africa enjoys, but it wasn’t always like that.

Blacks aren’t allowed to vote

Blacks were arguably the hardest hit by apartheid laws. In 1936, the government of the time introduced the Representation of Natives Act, which further reduced black rights. This Act prohibited blacks, or ‘natives’, as they were called then, from being on the same voters’ roll as whites. They were then placed in a ‘native roll’ and could no longer vote in ordinary elections for the House of Assembly or the Cape Provincial Council.

However, even though blacks were still not allowed to run for office, a fair number of black voters were allowed to vote separately for three members of assembly and two members of the council. With this Act, chiefs and local councils enjoyed the privileges of electing four whites to the senate. This was one of the few rights that the small black elite enjoyed. This law would be in place for over two decades until it was repealed in 1958.

Verwoerd introduces Bantustans

Hendrik Verwoerd became the Prime Minister in 1958 and pushed through the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act in his first days in office, which was a reversal of the Representation of Natives Act. However, some would argue that this served to only make things worse for the already marginalised blacks.

This Act basically created eight separate settlements, known as Bantustans, for Africans where they’d reside according to their ethnic groups. They’d be allowed to run their own independent governments unbothered. This Act also barred Africans from being citizens of the ‘white South Africa’ and further took away every right they might’ve enjoyed in the Republic.

People classified ‘African’ could still go to the ‘white South Africa’ to work (in the mines, for example) but they would have no rights to stay there, or to vote for the government of the white Republic. They would only be allowed to vote for the national government of their own ‘homeland’. This would remain for the next three decades until talks ending apartheid commenced in 1991.

Africans vote for the first time in 1994

After lengthy negotiations that stretched from December 1991 to 1993, the apartheid system was finally abolished in April 1994. The talks were between the governing National Party, the African National Congress and a wide variety of other political parties including the militant Inkatha Freedom Party. Although this transition was characterised by violence, orchestrated by Inkatha, the negotiations finally gave birth to South Africa’s first non-racial election.

The day everyone had been longing for finally came and millions queued in lines over a four-day voting period from 27 April. South Africa had 22.7 million eligible voters in 1994, and 19.7 people million showed up and voted in the national elections. There were 19 political parties on the ballot paper. Coming as a widely expected win, the African National Congress garnered a whopping 12, 237,655 votes (62%) with the governing National Party trailing by 3,983,690 (20%) and Inkatha in third place with 2,058,294 (10%). The first duty of the National Assembly was to elect Nelson Mandela as the first South African black president in what was to become a historic moment.

On the same day, South Africa’s new Constitution and Bill of Rights came into full effect, abolishing the Bantustans and ensuring everyone’s rights were enshrined. The ANC’s win brought an end to a lengthy campaign against apartheid and instilled hope for a non-racial democratic South Africa. More than this, it meant that the previously disadvantaged would finally get a taste of what freedom and being a dignified human being felt like. It gave light to those who had been in the dark for the longest time.

South Africa has made remarkable strides since then, exactly 26 years later, boasting a constitution that has been praised as one of the most progressive in the whole world. It’s no secret, though, that the country has experienced many challenges. Some may argue that it will take more than 26 years to rectify three hundred years of injustice and segregation.

Nelson Mandela spent over two decades in prison and thousands of people laid down their lives so that South Africans could have the right to vote. Surely, this is something that South Africans ought to cherish and appreciate, as it didn’t come without blood and sweat. In former President Nelson Mandela’s words, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Read about why June is called Youth Month here


Tell us: How do you celebrate Freedom Day?