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A work in progress

The new South Africa’s first fifteen years

by Robert Cohen

It is almost 15 years since the African National Congress took power in South Africa – a good time to assess what has been accomplished, what has not been accomplished and what just might be accomplished. Here I follow these paths through several territories: political reform; economic policy; health, especially the HIV-AIDS pandemic; housing; crime and corruption; and foreign policy. Though hardly definitive, these fields together provide an overview of a remarkable story.

In a sense, it is a blend of two stories. On the one hand there is the ANC inspirational version: the transformation of a society historically based on systemic race-driven discrimination that made South Africa a pariah among nations, a democratic revolution that brought the excluded majority to power within the framework of a progressive constitution. And indeed, many positive changes have taken place for which South Africans can rightly be very proud. But the second story is one of disappointments. Many South Africans are angry and feel betrayed by the failures of the new government. Overall, we get a picture of a democracy that is still fragile, sometimes messy, yet all in all a potential vehicle for peaceful social change for citizens willing to exercise their prerogatives.

The political transformation

On April 27, 1994, all South Africans were able to vote for the first time. Overwhelmingly, they endorsed the multiracial Government of National Unity led by Nelson Mandela. The new nation of South Africa was born. Years of apartheid and brutal social and economic injustice were behind it. Under the new interim constitution, the country was embarking, full of hope, on an era of political, social and economic development.

Election day in South Africa ended a tragic history of colonial rule stretching back to 1652. It happened because both Nelson Mandela, his ANC having consolidated mass support, and outgoing President Frederik de Klerk knew that neither side could impose its will by force. Beyond seeking to avert a terrible bloodbath, they could see that international sanctions were draining the economy and the business community was losing confidence.

During the negotiations leading up to the elections, Mandela was able to prevail on the principles of elections based on one person one vote, decisions in cabinet to be taken with a simple majority of 50 per cent plus one, and a Bill of Rights entrenching civil liberties in a permanent constitution still to be drafted. To allay fears in the White community, the Bill of Rights entrenched property rights, established a power-sharing arrangement for five years and guaranteed employment or retirement compensation to the police, military and civil servants. Although there would be no general amnesty, there would also be no “Nuremburg-style” trials. Instead, there would be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission: those who told the truth about their crimes, so that victims’ families could come to terms with the loss of their loved ones, could apply for amnesty.

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About the Author

Robert Cohen
Robert Cohen, former Director-General of the Société d’Habitation et de Développement de Montréal and Executive Vice President of Société d’Amélioration Milton Parc, has been working in South Africa for five years through the auspices of Rooftops Canada, an executing agency of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). In his capacity as a technical adviser on housing he has worked with the national government, the province of Gauteng, and Johannesburg Social Housing Company (JOSHCO), a municipal entity owned by the City of Johannesburg. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone. He wishes to thank Susan Altschul for her invaluable help in preparing this article.


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