OPINION | Chris Jones: A reflection on voting day 28 years ago

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Voting queues in Alexanda township for the second fully democratic elections in South Africa on 2 June 1999 (Photograph by: Henner Frankenfeld/PictureNET Africa)
Voting queues in Alexanda township for the second fully democratic elections in South Africa on 2 June 1999 (Photograph by: Henner Frankenfeld/PictureNET Africa)

Chris Jones reflects back 27 April 1994, when he participated in the first democratic elections and looks back on the notes he made at the time about his hopes and fears for the future.


Commemorated annually on 27 April, Freedom Day is a significant day on our national calendar because it reminds us of the first democratic election in our country, held on this day in 1994. 

While planning this article for Freedom Day, I revisited the notes I wrote down after participating in the first non-racial election in South Africa, 28 years ago. I made notes of my experience because I was working on my doctorate in Theological Ethics and Human Rights at the time. I focused, among others, on the Draft Bill of Human Rights prepared by the Constitutional Committee of the ANC.

I had two sets of notes. The one was lengthy, focusing on all the possible benefits of the new South Africa. The other one was short – it pointed to what possibly could go wrong. I must admit, the latter I wrote quite reluctantly because I firmly believed that the new South Africa would be one of reconstruction, nation-building, advancing human rights, and constitutional democracy. 

One of my first remarks in abovementioned notes referred to the fact that apartheid did not just fail morally and politically, but damaged each one of us, the oppressor as well as the oppressed. There were so many invisible injuries people had to deal with. I knew we needed a South Africa in which we could heal our spirits, restore our confidence, and allow our trust to blossom. 

Constitutional mechanisms

While scanning through my notes, I came across something written by Justice Albie Sachs in his 1992 book Advancing human rights in South Africa: "Yet important though the vote is, we must think beyond it … We are not asking for less than the vote. We are exploring means of having the vote plus". 

He then continues by making the vital point that the plus is constitutional mechanisms to ensure that inequalities are dealt with in an orderly, progressive, and principled way. 

Political democracy, in his words, is essential and necessary, but on its own insufficient. It must not only create an institutional framework within which power is to be expressed, but it must also put mechanisms in place to ensure that human rights are advanced and enjoyed. 

I found a further note reasoning that after the euphoria of this first democratic election would be over, our newly elected government – which I was very excited about – would have to prepare themselves for the problems of the day. 

Failure to do so, I wrote, would result in betrayal of everything so many people have fought for. What we were doing during that first election was the beginning of dotting the i's and crossing the t's of the ANC's Freedom Charter

We must remember that the Freedom Charter was always about people's rights, rather than a people's power document. However, it did not deal with mechanisms to achieve the rights of people, therefore we had to pick up where the Freedom Charter left off. 

Considering this, I asked myself in another note: What would the result of the first democratic election be over the next 20-30 years? I was so positive about our future because we were creating new possibilities through negotiation, and therefore I reasoned that our people would be spared the destruction and collapse of infrastructures often involved in the seizure of power – like in some other countries. 

I knew at that stage – although I have pushed this idea aside – that the danger exists that a new elite could emerge which would use its official position to accumulate wealth, power, and status for itself. And that the poor would remain poor and the oppressed would remain oppressed. Instead of racial oppression, we then would have non-racial oppression and poverty. 

There is a saying: Oppression in the name of the good is worse than oppression in defence of the bad. 

Making the country governable 

I was hoping that the new government would be able to make the transition from being in opposition, mainly accountable to the future, to being in authority, answerable to the present and all its challenges. The freedom organisations during apartheid gained considerable experience in making the country ungovernable in circumstances of racist autocracy, but they had yet to master the art of making the country governable in the context of constitutional democracy. 

I was also worried that the years of the long struggle would have made our new government and its officials intellectually weary and that their principal objective would be(come) getting into office and little more. I feared for intellectual fatigue, and a loss of moral imagination. 

I came across another interesting quote from Sachs's 1992 book, which encapsulated my worries and fears: "Having resisted the bullets and bombs of lead, we now face the bullets and bombs of sugar, and slowly we succumb to their sweetness. A job for a friend here, a place for a relative there … [and] directing contracts". 

The danger was always there that the new leaders would just deracialise oppression and poverty and legitimise inequality, and that politics would become the art of the manipulable. However, I rejected these concerns somewhat naively. 

Everyone matters

Then came 4 December 1996, the day on which our Constitution was approved, taking effect a bit later, on 4 February 1997. And this I embraced right from the beginning to this day because the Constitution is about human rights, not political power. Constitutionalism is the enemy of opportunism. Constitutional principles cannot be dependent on growth, Sachs reasons. It is rather in circumstances of scarcity that a constitution plays its fullest role through its principles and through fair procedures, deciding what the priorities should be

Constitutional democracy will live on, not as a form of institutionalised political power, but as active civic involvement in the processes of transformation, based on human rights and constitutional principles. The Constitution should be a glittering shield in which we all see our faces reflected. It is a document that establishes that everyone matters, counts, and that no one is born worthless. As Sachs points out: "a Constitution is not a product to be sold to the people through skilful advertising. It is something that emerges from our innards, that express our highest idealism while protecting us from our basest temptations". 

- Dr Chris Jones heads the Unit for Moral Leadership in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.

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