A formation of jets fly over the inauguration ceremony of South African President Thabo Mbeki at the Union Building in Pretoria April 27, 2004. Mbeki\'s inauguration was timed to coincide with South Africa\'s celebration of 10 years of post-apartheid democratic rule. REUTERS/Juda Ngwenya 

A formation of jets fly over the inauguration ceremony of South African President Thabo Mbeki at the Union Building in Pretoria April 27, 2004. Mbeki\'s inauguration was timed to coincide with South Africa\'s celebration of 10 years of post-apartheid democratic rule. REUTERS/Juda Ngwenya REUTERS
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Cape Town - The weeks leading to April 27, 1994 offered premonitions of a civil war – the ill-fated Inkatha march through central Joburg, the Bop rightwing coup attempt, the battlefields of the East Rand and their counterparts in KwaZulu-Natal, and, just days before the elections, right-wing bombings in Joburg.

The 27th dawned, a typical Cape late-April day, sunny but holding the promise of rain. Voting at a near-deserted polling station in District Six, there was sufficient quiet in which to remember those who gave their lives for this ballot - Matthew Goniwe, Robert Waterwich, Pro Jack, the victims of the 1985 massacre in Langa, Uitenhage to name but a few.

Then to an entirely different scene at a voting station in Gugulethu - one of those queues that brought a lump to the throat and would be emblematic of this chaotic, yet momentous, election, a queue snaking to the horizon with young and old patiently awaiting their chance to make that cross for the first time.

One of the familiar faces at the voting centre was that of struggle lawyer and ANC activist Bulelani Ngcuka, who in the years to come was to become a household name in the midst of the turbulent politics of the new millennium.

This was unimaginable stuff back in 1994 when the suburban householders who had not packed for Perth were left grappling with what to do with their tinned food emergency stock as the election ended in a peaceable result – no two-thirds majority for the ANC and two provinces under opposition party rule – and the world rejoiced at the inauguration of democratic South Africa’s first president, Nelson Mandela, who formed a Government of National Unity to spearhead transformation.

Children were to get milk and sandwiches at state schools; the talk was of Reconstruction and Development with a ministry dedicated to this programme headed by Jay Naidoo, who’d previously led the country’s biggest labour federation, Cosatu. Busloads of earnest new MPs knuckled down to changing law and policy with their committees open to the media and public scrutiny.

The country’s headlines were soon enough dominated by matters other than politics with crime often making front-page news. Snatched infant Micaela Hunter was still missing; fear of the Cleveland serial killer seized Joburg and Gauteng; the Red Mercury saga involving the murders of a string of people linked to the international arms/chemical trade made for gripping, if incredible, stories; foreign syndicates were setting up business; hijackers were roaming suburban streets.

And there was sport with the Rugby World Cup offering the ultimate rainbow nation images – Mandela and Francois Pienaar; Hillbrow and Mthatha erupting with joy at the Springbok victory. Equally, white South Africans went on to cheer Bafana, it being the years when the team was something to cheer about.

The jewel in the national crown was the country’s new constitution, one of the most progressive in the world and the result of painstaking debate and compromise.

Such give-and-take was nothing new to South Africa’s leaders – it had been the warp and weft of the negotiated settlement that heralded democracy, an approach South Africans were to export to several troubled countries in the decades to come.

Rumours of another kind of compromise would bubble under the surface in later years – the question of whether some of the country’s new leaders had in fact been long compromised by those, at home and abroad, with a vested interest in entrenching a free market economy.

But back then before the millennium, South Africa was a miracle nation and doors were being flung wide. Even Parliament allowed relatively free access to its walkways and offices – until large-scale theft and fears of sabotage brought more stringent security measures and the distance between journalists and politicians grew literally as the parliamentary press gallery lost its dining room, bar and common room and its members’ offices were relocated.

The world was yet to reel from 9/11, let alone the fallout of the Arab Spring. But in Cape Town urban terror emerged apace with the growth of crack houses and protection rackets in club land.

Meanwhile the dour emptiness that had characterised apartheid cities after dark gave way to a vibrant nightlife, from Long Street in the city centre and Green Point’s pink quarter to Joburg’s Yeoville and Melville.

None perhaps were as lively as the party in London’s Brixton when anti-apartheid activists of yesteryear gathered to celebrate on a night as sultry as any African summer night during Madiba’s first official visit to Britain in the summer of 1996. And that feel-good visit ended in a kiss as Mandela announced his intention to marry Graça Machel, the dignified widow of Mozambique’s leader, Samora Machel.

As the country was embracing new beginnings, so too its painful history was being laid bare during the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by the man who more than any other has represented South Africa’s conscience, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Raw emotion was present from the commission’s fraught start in East London’s town hall, outside which now stands a less-than-monumental memorial to slain Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko. The tears shed by Tutu, the victims’ anguish, the testimony of Eugene de Kock, the former Vlakplaas commander dubbed Prime Evil, who is today on the verge of parole, the often tedious amnesty hearings, the “banality of evil” were all brought to the nation by Max du Preez’s award-winning reports on the commission aired on the SABC every Sunday night.

It was part of a process of remembering and forgetting that in the end lacked closure. After the commission completed its work and handed over its recommendations there still remained vexing questions about justice denied, and, 20 years later, there is still unfinished business.

Also unfinished was the RDP, which was replaced by the policy of Gear, leaving the left all but out in the cold. It was an instance of an on-going theme of the first two decades of democracy – the triumph of concerns for macro-economic stability over demands for far greater socio-economic transformation.

Another would be the fractious nature of the ruling party’s alliance with Cosatu and the SACP, raising questions that remain pertinent from the perspective of both ends of the political spectrum. Would the ANC have been better placed to implement its economic policies if it did not have the alliance partners’ views to consider? Would the left be the more able to promote its viewpoint freed of the concerns of its governing partner, or would such a move leave it out in the cold?

The power of the ANC’s Youth League and its left wing to shape – some would say break – the party has played out through the decades. At the ANC’s conference in Mafikeng it saw Mosiuoa Lekota triumph over Steve Tshwete for the post of chairman.

Ten years later at the party’s Polokwane conference, the same blocs routed Lekota, who now leads the fractious opposition party Cope.

Yet back in 1999, when Thabo Mbeki succeeded Mandela, his presidency was hailed as a new dawn. The age of the African Renaissance, the patriotic bourgeoisie, black empowerment and talk of a developmental state was upon South Africa with a pipe-puffing, intellectual president fond of poetry and the capitals of the West, contemplative and technocratic rather than good at kissing babies. His stint at the helm of the ANC and the country would not only see the country enjoy economic stability and

government move towards long- term planning and measurables, but also the emergence of deep fissures in his party, while his Aids denialism bequeathed a terrible legacy of orphans and preventable deaths amid a disgraceful silence from his cabinet colleagues.

Mbeki won a landslide second term yet did not get to serve it out, recalled by the ANC in the maelstrom of intrigue and cover-ups that had begun in the last century when the first allegations of corruption in the country’s arms deal erupted.

Then-PAC MP Patricia de Lille had revealed a dossier of seemingly bizarre claims that pointed an accusatory finger at some in the upper echelons of the ANC. It had been drawn up by an enigmatic figure, former exile Bheki Jacobs, who continued to produce extraordinary accusatory dossiers on a range of subjects and was arrested at the height of the intrigue that involved the country’s top – it would later turn out dirty – cop, Jackie Selebi, crooked mining magnate Brett Kebble, Mbeki’s nemesis Jacob Zuma and the Scorpions.

MP turned anti-arms trade activist Andrew Feinstein described the arms deal as the poisoned well.

The description is apt. The corruption allegations continue to fester, interfacing with the machinations of rival political groupings within the ruling party.

It was far from the only corruption scandal to tarnish the reputation of government. From Travelgate to local government tenders and Nkandla, corruption has been a running sore, and it would seem the more powerful the corrupt, be they officials or businessmen, the less likely they are to be brought to justice.

It’s not the only shadow that fell over the “miracle nation” – xenophobia, violent crime, sexual abuse, drug trafficking and disgracefully poor policing have all taken a toll.

And in everyday life, mendacity, disrespect and greed were traits visible in the new millennium while conspicuous consumption, from designer baubles to expensive vehicles, has become a way of life for many of the new, and old, elite.

On the other side of the poverty divide, so-called service delivery protests have become something of the order of the day – a symptom of poor local governance, uneven delivery, and dashed great expectations. And police gunning down strikers at Marikana chilled South African democrats to the bone.

These problems, coupled with a widespread cynicism about government, mean South Africans’ celebration of 20 years of democracy is somewhat muted four presidents, numerous police commissioners and premiers, and umpteen grand economic plans later.

Nostalgia has given the nineties a sepia tone. People long for the days of the rainbow nation and Madiba’s leadership. Perhaps our country is yet to come to terms with being ordinary, another developing country, one where presidents have feet of clay, political parties cannot command the moral high ground and hard policy choices need to be made.

There’s a glib critique that 1994 notwithstanding, South Africa has not changed. That is nonsense.

Our country today is a very different place. Racial oppression institutionalised by law died in 1994 and people are free to go where they like and be who they want (and many want to be city dwellers living in the country’s rapidly expanding metropolitan centres).

South Africans’ lives and expectations have improved in myriad ways – notably those of the burgeoning black middle class – as reams of statistics indicate. And it’s not just in terms of the roll-out of basic services.

For example, the creation of a social welfare net and the largest ARV programme in the world are stellar achievements.

Yet most South Africans remain poor and that poverty is often destiny. It is too simplistic to say that class, rather than race, is the tool by which our country can now best be understood. History means race and class still mostly coincide.

The fight against racial oppression ended in 1994; the struggle for socio-economic justice remains and South Africans’ greatest challenge in the coming decade will be reaching agreement on how to rise to this and live up to their reputation of a miracle nation.

Weekend Argus