We drove in a tight convoy behind Archbishop Desmond Tutu, masking our nervousness behind lame jokes. It was April 27, 1994, and we were traveling to Guguletu, the racially fraught South African township where black youths had stoned and stabbed a white American to death just a few months earlier. This time, the neighborhood was making news for a different reason: the archbishop--a 62-year-old Nobel laureate--was finally going to be allowed to vote in the country of his birth. "The day has come," an ecstatic Tutu shouted, striding past other black first-time voters reaching out to touch his purple robes.
A decade has passed since South Africans of all races took part in the election that ended apartheid. On April 14, the nation's 20.7 million voters will again go to the polls where, barring some stupendous upset, they will re-elect the ruling African National Congress (ANC), now led by President Thabo Mbeki. The only suspense will likely be whether the ANC will win control of all nine provincial legislatures--and which political party will come in second. Against so mundane a backdrop, it is easy to forget the magnitude of the stakes that surrounded the historic ballot of 1994.
I was one of the journalists who gathered outside Tutu's official residence in the elegant Cape Town suburb of Bishopscourt on that early April morning. We were all tense. The run-up to the election had escalated the violence in a country that already had seen more than its fair share. White extremists on the far-right and black militants on the left were vowing to disrupt the polling. Would Guguletu erupt? Would we be attacked by hard-liners who sympathized with those who attacked California Fulbright scholar Amy Biehl because she was a white in a black area? Already that week, a car bomb had killed seven people near the ANC headquarters in central Johannesburg; several others had brought injury and death to other parts of the country. In the seething cauldron of what is now KwaZulu-Natal province, ongoing clashes between political rivals in the ANC and Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha movement had killed thousands over recent years; most analysts expected it to worsen when the nation tried to vote. In the cities, jittery whites were stockpiling food in anticipation of riots and looting. I saw one woman filling her trunk with, of all things, packages of toilet paper. "I bet no one else has thought of this," she said smugly.
As we now know, such precautions proved unnecessary. Yes, the voting was occasionally chaotic, especially in poorly served rural areas, and the results were uncertain for several days. But the final outcome couldn't have been better. The ANC's win of more than 62 percent of the vote was commanding enough to negate scattered claims of fraud--but short of the two-thirds majority that would have enabled it to make unilateral changes to the country's constitution. The two main opposition parties won only tiny proportions of the total vote but performed respectably enough for incoming President Nelson Mandela to include their leaders (the black Buthelezi and the white former president F. W. de Klerk) in a government of national unity. Most importantly, the threat of civil war subsided as white neo-Nazis largely accepted that 340 years of white domination had ended.
Mandela's unwavering message of racial reconciliation--even at the risk of alienating some of his young black supporters--played a crucial role in maintaining this political stability. His willingness to step down in favor of Mbeki after serving just one five-year term demonstrated a further commitment to democracy on a continent that has seen too many leaders outstay their mandates. In the years that followed, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission granted amnesties to those who had tortured and killed for political reasons, setting a global benchmark for how conflict-ridden societies can move beyond their pasts. A decade after the end of white rule, the country's media are also enjoying unprecedented liberty compared to the controls and restrictions of the past. "Editors remain largely white men, but Africans and colored [the South African term for people of mixed-race] males head up influential titles," Guy Berger, head of journalism and media studies at Rhodes University, wrote in a recent column in the national Mail and Guardian. "Media freedom is now taken for granted, notwithstanding regular government-editor spats about subpoenas requiring journalists to testify in courts and before commissions."
On other fronts, the government is trying to address social problems by providing the poor with basic services: Finance Minister Trevor Manuel told Parliament in February that it had extended potable water supplies to 9 million people; provided sanitation for 6.4 million and built 1.6 million houses. Socially, the country also has made considerable progress. If the color barriers haven't quite broken down, South Africans now tend to mix with a remarkable absence of tension at sporting events, restaurants and hotels.
It's not all good news, of course. Mbeki has been a disappointing leader, fumbling his country's AIDS crisis with his initial refusal to provide medication for the infected and failing to condemn Robert Mugabe's human rights abuses in neighboring Zimbabwe. Blacks still bear the brunt of poverty and an unemployment rate estimated at 40 percent. While the end of apartheid spurred the creation of a substantial black middle class, a recent U.S. Agency for International Development report found that almost 60 percent of black South Africans live in poverty, compared to 3 percent of whites. Similar disparities were found in levels of skills, education and housing. Race, inevitably, will remain a defining issue in this month's poll as well. A key reason for the ANC's continuing strength at the polls is that blacks, who make up about 75 percent of the country's 45 million people, still see it as the party of liberation. Liberal opposition parties, by contrast, tend to attract the bulk of their support from the white minority.
South Africa's biggest problem now is probably crime. Armed carjackings are so common they rarely make the newspapers, and the country has one of the highest rates of murder in the world, eroding the social fabric and quality of life for both blacks and whites. After a recent visit, I couldn't recall meeting anyone who either hadn't had their own experience of robbery or were personally acquainted with the victims of violent attacks that included shootings, rapes and killings. Those who spend their days living behind high walls and constantly looking over their shoulders tend not to be upbeat about their country's achievements.
But as someone who covered the ugly death throes of apartheid, this anniversary is an occasion to remember the years when the future seemed far bleaker. Those were the years when the white minority regime dispatched death squads to eliminate dissenters, tortured activists, held thousands indefinitely without trial and forced others out of their homes just because they were blacks living in white areas. And it's a time to remember the words of another elderly dark-skinned man who, like Tutu, cast his ballot back in 1994. "I cried," Mohamed Latief told me in Cape Town. "Because I am 76 and this is the first time I've voted. Because for 76 years I was nothing but a baboon." South Africa still has intractable problems to confront, but this month brings much to celebrate, too.