Today is Freedom Day in South Africa, a country that doesn’t take freedom for granted. Freedom Day celebrates South Africa’s first democratic elections, held on this day in 1994.
Voting began on April 26, for the elderly, the ill, and pregnant women. The general election was held from April 27 to April 29, and was open to all South Africans 18 and older, regardless of race. Prior to the election, non-whites had limited voting rights. Under the apartheid system that ruled the country since 1948, voting was essentially restricted to white South Africans.
That’s not to say there were free elections before 1948. The Dutch East India Company established the first “refreshment station” on the Cape in 1652. In the 19th century, British settlers arrived in increasing numbers, and black rights gradually eroded. Blacks and Indians were excluded from government in 1910, when the Union of South Africa was formed. Later laws required black South Africans to carry special passbooks and banned them from owning property outside of certains “reserves”. These reserves made up only 13% of the land area of South Africa, despite the fact that blacks made up an overwhelming majority of South Africa’s population.
After the National Party came to power in 1948, several laws restricted rights even further: the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, the Immorality Act of 1950, the Population Registration Act, and the Group Areas Act, which forced black South Africans to move out of neighborhoods that were designated as “white only”. Future laws segregated virtually every aspect of South African life, from elementary schools to swimming pools.
No one event brought about the end of Apartheid. The struggle combined international pressure from both governments and corporations, economic sanctions, internal boycotts, and other forms of resistance. Apartheid laws fell one by one, the African National Congress was reinstated as a legal organization, and in 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
Mandela became the first black President of South Africa after the election of 1994. He was inaugurated on May 10. Every year since, South Africa has celebrated April 27 as Freedom Day.
This year’s Freedom Day celebrations “happen on the eve of the biggest sporting event, the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup, which will for the first time take place on African soil.” — Gauteng province to host the Freedom Day national celebrations
[For Americans: Soccer is a big sport in much of the world outside the States. Much like basketball except it’s played outdoors on grass and players can’t use their hands.] Like many new holidays, traditions are still being formed:
“The only thing I’m not sure about is how we are supposed to celebrate Freedom Day. I know and respect everything associated with the day but for me it is just a public holiday where I chill and do whatever. On the odd occassion, I will watch SABC 2 to hear and see what rallies are happening…”
Others call April 27 “unFreedom Day”, using the holiday to comment on the sharp divide between the rich and poor still all-too evident in South Africa.
“There are many in South Africa who feel that Freedom Day is a cruel joke which attempts to gloss over the true social concerns of citizens. Abahlali baseMjondolo, which means “shack dwellers” in isiZulu, is an intellectual movement formed in early 2005 in Durban, South Africa. To counteract Freedom Day, a day that actually reminds the poor in South Africa just how un-free they are, Abahlali spread the realities of UnFreedom Day through educational discussions, meetings and creative expression in films and music. UnFreedom Day has also begun to take on a positive meaning, a reminder of just how strong and united the movement has become.”