Seventeen years after freedom came to South Africa, a status check

Black South Africans cast their first votes as full citizens in 1994. How far has the country come?

Denis Farrell/AP/File
In this April 27, 1994 file photo, a long line of people line up towards a polling station in the black township of Soweto outside of Johannesburg in the nation's first all-race elections. Tomorrow, when South Africans celebrate 'National Freedom Day,' they will take stock of what 17 years of freedom have gotten them.

Seventeen years ago today, black South Africans lined up to cast their first votes as full citizens in a new South Africa.

And tomorrow, when South Africans celebrate “National Freedom Day,” South Africans will take stock of what 17 years of freedom have gotten them.

It’s always a question of emphasis and temperament. On one hand, freedom has increased the ability of South Africans of any race or religion to choose where they want to live; given them more control over their career and education choices; and ended the racial restrictions of the apartheid government. Yet for some South Africans, this has been a zero-sum game, where increased economic or political opportunities for black South Africans means fewer of those same opportunities for the white minority.

Today’s South Africa is generally more prosperous, as the end of sanctions and the expansion of South African businesses into Africa and abroad has tripled the South African economy from a $111 billion in 1990 to $354 billion in 2010, according to the International Monetary Fund. Some white South Africans may look fondly upon the “good old days” before the arrival of black majority rule, but the truth is that South Africa’s white apartheid government was stone-cold broke when it handed over power to the African National Congress in 1994.

With South African holding municipal elections on May 18, this tug-of-war between optimism and pessimism has become a matter of daily headline news, and small opposition parties like the Democratic Alliance are hoping to make inroads among black voters frustrated waiting for the ANC to delivery on its promises.

For many South Africans, those promises have been honored. Drive into some of South Africa’s larger and more established townships, such as Alexandra and Soweto, and you’ll see proper paved roads, newly remodeled middle-class homes, condominium complexes, and even shopping malls. You’ll also see mushrooming informal settlements springing up on the boundaries, with new arrivals living inside stifling corrugated-tin shacks with no access to water or sanitation. South Africa’s government simply cannot keep up with the demand.

This unmet demand for services can be the spark for violence in townships such as Zandspruit, west of Johannesburg, where police fired rubber bullets to disperse protesters in late March, and where residents lit tires to block a local highway just last night. And it can lead to embarrassing disputes such as the “toilet wars” in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township, where the city provided free toilets last year while requiring residents to build their own enclosures. The plan may have been one devised by the ANC, but it is the current administrators of the Democratic Alliance who are bearing the brunt of resident anger. A mass protest is planned in Khayelitsha tomorrow.

Foreign correspondents in their first year in South Africa are often struck by that rare occurrence when a frustrated black South African tells them that times were better under apartheid. It’s a minority viewpoint, to be sure, generally found in townships where basic services such as clean drinking water, sewage service, and electricity simply haven’t arrived yet. But judging by the number of citizen protests in townships, it is a viewpoint that has struck a chord.

But Jackson Mthembu, the ANC’s national spokesman, is fond of pointing out that his government has only been in power for 17 years, while the nation’s problems have been brewing since the beginning of white rule in the 17th century.

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