OPINION | 30 years of freedom: A reflection on three decades of democracy writes Vanessa Banton

While the 27 April 1994, when citizens of all races and creeds could vote, marked the birth of democracy in South Africa, the journey to get to that point started many years before.

No one was expecting it when it happened. Instead, everyone was under the impression that FW de Klerk, who had been president of the apartheid regime for barely five months, would only deliver his annual address to the legislature in February 1990. But with history turning the corner in other parts of the world, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, De Klerk decided to take the initiative and announce the unbanning of the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress, the South African Communist Party and several other organisations.

Nine days later, ANC leader Nelson Mandela would walk out of Victor Vester prison a free man after spending 27 years in jail. Ahead of the fall of laws that legalised separation of race groups and discrimination, such as the Group Areas Act, Population Registration Act, and Native Land and Trust Act, a handful of previously white schools around the country would open their doors to black children.

The high school I attended was one such school. It was situated in the Afrikaner enclave of Potchefstroom, in what was then the Northern Transvaal.

In the lead-up to the 1992 referendum, in which white voters could indicate whether they were “for” or “against” the negotiated Constitution, Potchefstroom was awash with stickers on people’s cars, calling on everyone to vote “no”, giving the impression that whatever change was in the air following Mandela’s release would soon be squashed. This was only heightened by the assassination of SACP leader Chris Hani on 10 April 1993. Negotiations to end apartheid were already fraught. Just nine days before Hani’s death the Multi-Party Negotiating Forum (MPNF) met for the first time, following the collapse of Codesa 1 and 2.

The country was primed for a civil war. Nelson Mandela would play a crucial role in calming the masses.

In a televised address, Mandela said it was “the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for – the freedom of all of us”.

Despite the previous challenges and obstacles, negotiations culminated in the passage of a new interim Constitution in 1993, a precursor to the 1996 Constitution and then to South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. 

By Vanessa Banton – News24 Opinions editor

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