Last weekend South Africa celebrated Freedom Day, marking the 25th anniversary of the country’s first democratic elections. As we head towards the polls next week to cast our vote in the fifth elections since the fall of apartheid, it seems like a good time to reflect on that historic day.
The 27th April 1994 is possibly the most important day in the history of South Africa, with millions of adults experiencing the electoral process for the first time in their lives. It is estimated that there were around 21.7 million eligible voters in South Africa in 1994, about 16 million of whom had never voted before! In order to deal with such vast numbers no formal voters roll was prepared. Instead, people used their identity books as proof of citizenship. Approximately 2.5 million people didn’t have ID books, so temporary identity papers were issued, with residents of the homelands identifying themselves with travel documents.
With close to 20 million people casting their vote between the 27th and the 29th April, the turnout was impressive and, despite fears of violence, the atmosphere at voting stations was festive. The Independent Electoral Commission counted 19,726,610 ballots, rejecting 193,112 as invalid. With observer missions from the United Nations, the British Commonwealth, the European Union and Organisation of African Unity declaring the elections free and fair, the country’s first democratic elections were an overwhelming success.
19 political parties competed in the elections, with the African National Congress (ANC) winning the majority of the vote, but falling just short of the two-thirds majority required to unilaterally amend the Interim Constitution. The ANC won a majority in seven provincial legislatures. The National Party (NP) won a majority in the Western Cape, with the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) winning the majority in KwaZulu-Natal
In line with the Constitution, post elections the ANC formed a Government of National Unity with the NP and the IFP, the only other parties to have won more than 20 seats in the National Assembly. The new National Assembly’s first act was to elect Nelson Mandela as President, making him the country’s first black chief executive.
Nelson Mandela was inaugurated on the 10th May 1994 as the country’s first democratically-elected President, with the National Party’s, F.W. de Klerk, elected as his deputy. In addition to being South Africa’s first non-white head of state, Nelson Mandela was also the oldest president in South Africa’s history, taking office at the age of 75.
With a new government at the helm, South Africa was finally welcomed back into the international community. The country was admitted into the Organisation of African Unity and resumed its seat in the General Assembly of United Nation. In July 1994, South Africa was also re-admitted to the Commonwealth of Nations.
After decades of oppression, the world watched as South Africans were finally free, on a day that will be remembered by millions of South Africa as a turning point in our country. And what could have been a dramatic and volatile occasion, was instead one where South Africans stood side by side as equals for the first time in their country’s history. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, it was “an incredible experience, like falling in love”.