Twenty years later, where is South Africa going?

I voted in Orlando West, Soweto, on May 7 while covering the poll for the BBC just as I did 20 years ago. On that amazing day of April 27 1994 I voted for the very first time, also in Soweto. And his time around there was a lot of reflection, both from a personal perspective and from a national point of view. 

I asked myself the same questions last week that millions of South Africans probably mulled: where is South Africa going? Is the country of Albert Luthuli, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, Helen Joseph, and many others, on the right track? Where is the ship going – by holding these elections, are we rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic? Some would argue that corruption scandals, such as the Nkandla saga, are just the tip of the iceberg.

I spend most of my time covering the ills of our world for news purposes, and consequently I can give you a long list of the problems South Africa is facing, from the high crime rate to the high levels of unemployment, inequality and grinding poverty in the hinterland of this beautiful land.

When you listen to the morning news on any given day, especially in a city like Johannesburg, you may be forgiven for thinking that the country is going to the dogs. Recently I covered the terrible murder of two young girls in Diepsloot, just north of the gated community of Dainfern. The cousins, Yonalisa and Zandile Mali – who were two and three years old – were found dumped in a toilet in Section 1 of the sprawling squatter camp.

As a father of a young daughter – I was devastated by the story. I thought to myself, I don’t want my gorgeous little girl to grow up in a country where young children are murdered at will.

My job is to bring our country’s news to the global audience of BBC World News and to use my knowledge and insight, gained whilst living and breathing the stories of our country, to share an understanding of its history, its culture, its people. That story of Diepsloot was just one of many depressing stories I covered in a democratic South Africa. I also reported on the Marikana tragedy. The morning after the massacre I could smell the stench of blood on the open veld near the small Koppie next to a shaft operated by Lonmin Platinum. 

I have witnessed many other depressing stories of this young democracy. But does it mean things are falling apart? I argue they are not. In fact they are getting better in spite of the ills I mentioned above.

When I voted in 1994, I met a 75-year-old Mr Kaptein, who was voting for the very first time in the country of his birth. He told us: "Today for the very first time, I feel like a human being. My dignity is restored." 

When I was standing in line last Wednesday waiting for my turn to exercise my constitutional right, these words came flooding back. People waited for a lifetime to vote. We can’t just throw it away simply because we are angry at government. The history runs too deep. Many people died for this right.

My role at the BBC means I’m privileged to be able to put forward the questions that South Africans want to ask, to people they don’t all have access to. After I voted, I spoke to the president of Ghana, John Kofuor – who was leading the African Union election observer missions – and he told me: "We are happy to witness a free and fair election under way on the African continent. The people are voting peacefully."

Again, memories of the bloody violence preceding that historic election came back. In 2014, there’s no political violence. Political parties were campaigning against each other, in some cases, in rallies literally adjacent to each other. It is, to me, still unthinkable that this country that was once regarded as the skunk of the world, has successfully hosted the rugby World Cup in 1995, the Fifa World Cup in 2010 and countless other massive global events.

Gross domestic produce has almost tripled from $136-billion to $385-billion, according to a  Goldman Sachs report. Looking at what has changed since the advent of democracy in the last two decades, I interviewed Thabang Ramogase, a consultant from Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing who told me that since the end of apartheid, South Africa’s black middle class had grown significantly and, not only had it become bigger in size, it also had bigger spending power.

I drove in a Rolls Royce convertible with millionaire Dr Mlungisi Kwini who made his money through coal mining. He holds a PhD in chemistry and so does his wife. He said he doesn’t think that he would have reached the pinnacle of his career if apartheid was still in force.

Of course, not every black person drives such a car because of democratic rule, but the country has unleashed the potential of its greatest asset – that of its people.

So if anyone asks whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, the answer is simple: it is definitely half-full.

Milton Nkosi is the BBC Africa bureau analyst and correspondent reporting for BBC World News (@nkosi_milton). BBC World News is on DStv channel 400.

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