[OPINION] South Africa’s imperfect and difficult transition

10 April 1993. All South Africans know where they were when the news broke of Chris Hani’s assassination, just like 27 April 1994 - the day of the first democratic election - will forever be etched upon the nation’s memory.

It is 22 years since the adoption of the final Constitution but as we see repeatedly, the Constitution itself, together with the manner and meaning of our transition, have become deeply contested.

We saw this graphically on display during the conversations following Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s passing. A younger generation blames Mandela for ‘selling us out’ – and the Constitution has become the scapegoat for all that is wrong in society.

That argument often ignores the complexities and historical context of the time, as well as the role those in power play (or fail to play) in implementing the constitutional promise. South Africa seems to be a country fractured and unable to reconcile.

Looking back on the imperfections of South Africa’s transition, the only thing that can be said with certainty is that transitions are imperfect and difficult. Yet this week, as the country celebrates 24 years of freedom, South Africans seem slightly less optimistic and enthusiastic; trusting their leaders far less than in those halcyon days, and at times seeming rudderless.

Deepening levels of inequality have exacerbated race and class divisions. Already the International Labour Organisation has found that South Africa has a youth unemployment rate of 52% - far higher than those of neighbouring countries. Much of this has to do with the failure of the post-apartheid education system. And so, the status quo is a rather bleak one.

Is it any wonder that dialogue is brittle and that blame is apportioned readily and angrily? When there is disagreement, South Africans appear to not be listening but instead turn up the volume and out-shout the other. Is apartheid to blame for the country’s current ills, or the corruption prevalent across so much of the government? Perhaps it is all the fault of the liberal media? And so it goes on.

There seems to be no space for middle ground, or for one finding the other - only the anger of exclusion and unfulfilled promises. The reality is a nearly 27% unemployment rate and unsustainable levels of inequality.

As a country, South Africa clearly underestimated the apartheid legacy and the ability to create a ‘developmental state’; too little emphasis was placed on mobilising citizens’ energies for change and short-termism by the government compromised sustained transformation of society. There was an assumption that elected officials and public servants would be incorruptible, while the unintended consequences of policy choices were not adequately recognised and consensus was often ‘imposed’.

The National Development Plan (NDP), itself a contested document, also contends that without a new development trajectory, South Africans will remain unequal, poor and lacking the cohesion necessary to live together peacefully.

For the nation remains stymied by difference. And violence - whether by state repression at Marikana, xenophobic attacks or from one citizen to the other (in Mahikeng or elsewhere) - becomes a means of problem solving. Yet, as we see time and time again, there is something at the heart of society; a resilience that has seen the nation create the impossible despite these differences.

In this country of great complexity and contradiction, freedom is linked not only to economic emancipation and opportunity – but also a sense of understanding and relating to ‘the other’ across the ingrained fault lines of race and class.

The meaning of 27 April 1994 was about creating something new, grasping the urgency of a new development trajectory and reaching across divides. That is the triple challenge of Freedom Day this year.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february