A democracy bash like no other

2004-04-22 16:00
Johannesburg - South Africa is gearing up for an effervescent election and world-wide celebrations of ten years of democracy, with a huge sigh of relief that a transition which many feared would lead to a bloodbath has produced "a nation that works".

In April 1994, the first unrestricted elections sounded the death-knell of 46 years of institutional racism and ushered in a transition that was peaceful beyond all hopes, despite some 12 000 deaths in pre-poll fighting.

A decade later, the government and their diplomatic missions around the world will celebrate with festivals, expositions, debates and concerts as members of the African National Congress (ANC) prepare for what all analysts see as a shoo-in for another five years of power.

"South Africa is a global pathfinder," commented Allister Sparks, a chronicler of the country's recent past.

"It is an exciting place to live in because it is at the cutting edge of so many of the world's most challenging problems," he wrote in a 2003 book, "Beyond the Miracle".

The state is spending almost R90m on the celebrations, with the high point April 27, the 10th anniversary of the 1994 vote.

That may well turn out to be the day that Thabo Mbeki takes the oath to serve his second five-year term as head of state.

"Ten years of freedom" and "Ten years of the ANC" are refrains likely to become commingled over the next couple of months, with the Democratic Alliance jealously guarding any apparent fusion of state and ruling party.

It will be even more on the qui vive now that the New National Party is co-operating with the ANC.

Tutu full of hope

The echoes, meanwhile, will reverberate around the planet.

They include the adoption of one of the world's most liberal constitutions which even protects gay rights on a homophobic continent, a patient process of reconciliation and economic empowerment, and a stubborn campaign for a more equal world order.

"Once we have got it right", said Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu on the night the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Nelson Mandela and outgoing president Frederik de Klerk, "South Africa will be the paradigm for the rest of the world".

Later, reflecting on the success of the transition, he said: "God has a sense of humour. God must have said, 'Precisely because they have sunk so low, they can be a sign to the world, no matter how bestial people are to others, the nightmare can end.'"

"The Arch," as he is known with great affection, won his own Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, and presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sat for six years and is now being copied by other countries.

It granted amnesty to more than 1 200 people of all political persuasions who demonstrated clear repentance for political crimes under apartheid, and recommended reparations to victims.

The world followed South Africa's liberation struggle like no other, with its leaders described by US president Ronald Reagan and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher as "terrorists" while anti-apartheid activists boycotted sports fixtures and lobbied businesses in an attempt to isolate the white regime.

No other world leader received the adulation accorded to Mandela as he became head of state after 27-years behind bars and assured whites they were a welcome element of the "rainbow nation".

A voice to be heard

Now, from the environment to world trade, South Africa has become a voice which must be heard, its weight felt - and sometimes resented - throughout Africa and beyond.

It has brokered peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, its businesses have spread their tentacles through Africa, and it has sent arms experts to Iraq.

Mandela even negotiated the deal under which Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi sent the Lockerbie bombing suspects to stand trial in The Hague.

In 2002, internet whizz-kid Mark Shuttleworth became the first "Afronaut", aboard a Soyuz capsule.

Under apartheid, the economy was static and isolated, but over the past two years the rand has been the world's best performing currency, firming by 43% against the dollar in 2002, and a further 35% in 2003.

At the same time, despite providing cheap houses, water and electricity, South Africa has been unable to eradicate poverty or reduce massive unemployment, hovering at around 35%, though new strata of rich and middle-class blacks have emerged.

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