Voting on Possibility in South Africa: Reflecting on 25 Years

by Alyx Carolus


Nelson Mandela, the 1994 elections, the end of the apartheid regime, and the 2010 World Cup are key subjects South Africans refer to when describing our country to the rest of the world. This year, we’ve reflected on 25 years of democracy and being known as one of Africa’s most prosperous countries.

In 2019, South Africa reached another major milestone: hosting our country’s sixth national election that ran relatively smoothly. But what has actually changed over the last two decades and how are we moving forward?



My mother, her siblings, and my grandmother were not born free nor allowed to vote. My family lived in segregated areas and my mother was often privy to seeing apartheid police roam around the neighbourhood, looking for people to pick up and send to jail, many of whom didn’t return. My grandmother had two career options available to her as a Coloured (in this context, Coloured refers to Creole/mixed race identity in South Africa and is recognised as a valid racial category) woman – she could be a teacher or a nurse.


I was born in the 90s, just before the first democratic elections that forever changed South Africa. The historic event, highlighted with that iconic image of the voting line wrapped around the field, saw Nelson Mandela’s appointment as South Africa’s president, and had a profound impact on the way that South Africa was viewed on a global scale. It was a sharp turn from the previous regime and the elections represented hope, freedom, and the ability to rebuild a country.



However, the horrendous apartheid regime, which was in place from 1948 until the 1990s, is not a period easily forgotten. The segregation laws impacted every facet of life for people of color, from categorizing different races to forced removals and resources allocated only to the minority group of white people (who now make up approximately 10% of the population). The effects were long-lasting and permeated right into the fabric of the South African life. Apartheid impacted where you lived, who you married, where you worked, what you could do, and the psychological trauma thereof is not something that’s going to escape generations easily or completely. People lost family members through the sheer trauma of forced removals – leaving homes they had built, memories they had made to start over without a choice.


The elections felt like a reset the country so badly needed – along with beloved Nelson Mandela from the African National Congress (ANC) at the forefront, many used South Africa as the prime example for fostering peace and the ideals of a “rainbow nation”. But where are we now?



In the early 2000s, South Africa began the rebrand with ‘Proudly South African’ – an initiative that encourages citizens to buy local, support small business and help grow the local economy. It was around this time that the South African media starting focusing on children from all racial backgrounds who had been born post-1994, named the “born-frees” for only experiencing South Africa under democratic rule and growing up without segregation laws. The new generation of children who made friends across racial divides didn’t “see” colour and were lauded as the future of South Africa – a group who would never experience the horror of the apartheid regime.



This very generation became some of the first to access social media and had an integrated curriculum from their early school days unlike most of their parents and grandparents. However, Statistics South Africa has some shocking facts – the unemployment rate in SA was around 55.5% in 2015 – meaning that over half of the country is without a formal means of employment. According to StatsSA, this translates into over 30.4 million South Africans living in poverty. The institution shared that 63.2% of black people, 37% of colored people and 6.9% of Indian/Asian people were living in poverty


You can see the devastating effects of unemployment, as the crime rates are high in both low-income and wealthy areas. Across the country, people of colour live in areas that resemble warzones, with shocking gang violence becoming a part of day-to-day life. 


Since the rise of democracy in South Africa, the public school system has undergone many changes. Growing up, I went to a high school that was in my neighbourhood (comprised of people of colour and mix of classes) – there were overcrowded classes, a severe lack of resources, and we didn’t have a library. My grade 8 class started with around 40 pupils and by the time I reached matric (grade 12) I was in a class of 23 students. 


Gang violence, sexual assault, and ongoing violence in the country sees many families living in fear as well as dealing with trauma. It’s hard to ignore glaring socio-economic difficulties, as teenagers from low-income households often drop out of school in order to work or end up involved in illegal activities. 


Parties have promised change since 1994, but there’s not much to show for it on the ground. The glimmer of hope from the ‘rainbow-nation’ era has faded and citizens want results. In late 2015, South Africa hit the headlines for #FeesMustFall, a student-led movement that saw young adults protest for free education and decolonised education spaces. The reality is that getting a university degree is simply not accessible for low-income households and the idea of free education for all was one of the ANC’s first campaign promises. 


South African political parties come under fire for corruption, big promises with miniscule delivery and being woefully out-of-touch with the young adult demographic – who make up the majority of the country statistics. According to the StatsSA report, teenagers and young adults between the ages of 15 to 34 years old are 35.7% of the total population. 


My peers who have grown up with social media, with access to higher education, and understand what politicians lack in this country, feel disillusioned. There is little to no voter education from a young age and so there is high levels of apathy across the board. This distrust and lack of confidence towards the government is heightened when young adults look at global politicians, like former US president Barack Obama and most recently, US representative, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a millennial who is making waves around the world with her incredibly relatable life experiences, while navigating politics. 



This month saw the newly elected South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, sign in his new cabinet of ministers to help govern the country. And one of the highlights? 50% of the cabinet is comprised by women, which is the highest ratio ever for the country. However, South Africa is not the first African country to have an equal number of men and women in cabinet – Rwanda and Ethiopia have led the way. 


One of South Africa’s slogans is “alive with possibility” – and it’s true. My great-grandmother was a washer-woman who couldn’t read or write her own name. My grandmother was an English teacher who taught many to read and write. I’m the first grandchild to get a degree in my family and now, I write for a living.


South Africans want equality, education for all, and a system that works to undo the real spatial and economic issues that citizens face. We want a high quality of life and safer spaces to live. South Africa has mastered the relatively peaceful election but action is needed, after all possibility can only work for so long.

Read about Tamu’s first impressions of Capetown, South Africa and share your thoughts below with us, Pretty Birds.

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