Former president Nelson Mandela

It is 18 years since South Africans rose early on that Wednesday to stumble over the rubble of apartheid and build anew, forming orderly queues at polling stations throughout the country.

Most were voting for the first time. Others had voted before, but alone, in racial isolation. In all, 19 726 610, undeterred by the bomb blasts and bloodshed in the build-up to the day, turned out to jointly assert their right and their faith in a democratic South Africa.

A sense of victory eclipsed the uncertainty and anxiety. Two weeks later, Nelson Mandela took the oath as the first president of a democratic South Africa. It was a time of relief, excitement and renewal.

“We have, at last, achieved our political emanci-pation,” Madiba said. “We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination.”

Eighteen years on, we have not freed all from that bondage. Far from it. There has been a lot of talk about the need for it, many plans, and much progress on many fronts. The truth is, though, that millions of citizens have not tasted the fruits of freedom beyond casting their ballots.

Their disappointment is now fomenting, becoming bitter, showing itself in scattered outbreaks of unrest. They see others enjoying those fruits, including the political elite and those connected to them, which they have not been able to share.

Julius Malema and his Youth League cohorts acted stupidly and deserved their comeuppance, but their identification of an economic freedom struggle was astute. It struck a chord with their constituency, and resonated far wider.

President Zuma has every reason today to celebrate the freedom he helped win. We all do. The society we have today, faulty as it is, brooks no comparison with the toxic dispensation that once was.

But he should also use the day to reflect on those shortcomings in freedom, where people have not enjoyed the dividends of democracy. For the sake of our future, they must, and soon.