Where have all the heady memories of the first general election called for April 27, 1994, through negotiated settlement, gone?
Long, colourful, winding queues of almost 20 million (in a population of less than 40 million) – generally overjoyed South Africans of all hues, beliefs and position – waited patiently to cast their vote.
Elections were extended to April 29 to cater for the more than 90% of first-time expectant voters. On May 9, 1994, the newly constituted democratic Parliament unanimously elected Nelson Mandela as our founding president.
On March 28, the IFP marched on the ANC Johannesburg headquarters protesting against the elections that they were intent on boycotting. Nineteen protesters were killed, which the Nugent Commission found was unwarranted; the same Nugent who in 2018 made damning findings against the Sars commissioner. Amidst a national and international sigh of relief, the IFP agreed a few days before April 27 to participate.
As the ballots had already been printed, IFP stickers were hurriedly added to the already printed ballot papers. The actual elections were peaceful, although subsequent elections have had the spectre of terrible violence, with deadly contestation before and after the results.
Of the 19 parties contesting the 1994 elections, six won parliamentary seats, including the apartheid National Party (NP), which won 20% of the vote. On the NP’s dissolution 17 years ago, a majority of its members was subsumed by the ANC.
Despite the oft-repeated promises of a better life for all over the past 28 years, faith in our electoral and democratic system has steadily eroded.
Currently, our registered voters stand at 26.1 million, of which 55.21% are women, and only 46.7% of registered voters participated in the 2019 elections. Alarmingly, only 21.1% of registered voters are 18-39 years old, reflecting the extent of disaffection of young people who are by far the majority in South Africa. The particularly evidenced declining voting numbers and the large number of youth who have been so alienated that they have not bothered to register to vote should worry all of us.
Especially after such youthful groups are now filling the yawning gap created by law and other enforcement agencies. They mount strident campaigns against “foreign nationals”, as the law and order and other agencies seem to have lost the ability to perform the functions for which they are assured monthly salaries.
Youth also form the hump of protesters, as we terrifyingly witnessed in July. This missing younger majority in all our official South African celebrations – and in most other societal processes – is worrisome, and was quite noticeable during Wednesday’s Freedom Day events.
It is important that those of us in the liberation and older generations – over 40 year olds comprise less than 30% of South Africa’s total population – at least take responsibility for allowing, even enabling, this untenable state of affairs to persist.
The Latin adage mea culpa – my fault, guilt, culpability, mistake – is the epitome of accountability and taking responsibility for our actions or lack thereof, that my liberation and older group tends to avoid.
We have wished our actions or avoidance away. We have denied wrongdoing – perhaps because we wished to benefit from some of the largesse of wrongdoing – even arguing why wrongdoing should be condoned and should go unpunished.
We must acknowledge that our choices, our actions, our avoidance, our seemingly plausible but clearly stupid defence of the indefensible has endangered the more than 70% who we claim to be acting on behalf of and who we cannot afford to be traumatised by the nightmares we have reduced our liberation dreams to.
The malaise of blaming everyone else but ourselves for the mess we’re in weighs us down, preventing us from rising above our rapidly deteriorating socio-economic status. This situation embedded in malfeasance, where the entitled desire to get rich at all costs, has to stop with us.
Our children, our grandchildren, those yet to be born cannot look back at the historic democratic advent as a burden, as an opportunity for despots and a new breed of younger narrowly focused narcissists to take the patently unsustainable – even false – prevailing narratives that can only serve to entrench mediocrity for the majority and all else for the 20% that owns 80% of South Africa’s wealth.
Our dreams remain, and deserve to be those for all our people; for a truly free South Africa where all are equal, imbued with and treated with dignity, and where the young majority are able to fully participate in determining our collective future.
Thus will the negativity, the hopelessness and sense of learned helplessness that diminishes our common humanity be destroyed. Our heady memories of April 27, 1994, are what dreams are made of, and cannot be deferred or turned into new nightmares.
* Cooper is the President of the Pan-African Psychology Union, a former leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, a political prisoner and a member of the 1970s group of activists.