A quarter of a century is a long time — the face in the mirror is so markedly different from the ones in the photographs that attest to the way we were. Looking back across those 25 years, into another century and from another millennium, many of us are tempted to become nostalgic. We also realise that we are looking into another country, a place where the habits of being, even our own, may seem strange, probably misremembered.
The queues, the face of Nelson Mandela, our own youth or middle age, hope and anticipation — we are all reduced to clichés when we confront our own recent past. It is not yet costume drama, after all.
In the life of a country — in South Africa, it may be important to avoid assuming the existence of a nation, despite the marking of the establishment of a post-apartheid order as a nation state — 25 years is not that long a stretch of time.
The buildings have not yet grown quaint, merely dilapidated, perhaps in need of a fresh paint job. We remember them being larger, or better maintained, sometimes in defiance of the evidence to the contrary. That is the danger of nostalgia.
Efforts at building a nation in South Africa have been pockmarked with failure, partly because the metaphors and tropes of the colonial and apartheid past continue to damage the present.
Our imaginations have not yet been unfettered from the terms of our own dehumanisation, whether as victims of that crime against humanity, or as beneficiaries of the half-century of contradictions so poorly summarised in the word “apartheid”.
We look at our present and, at our most self-critical, we may have to compare the world we now know against the world we imagined we would be in as we queued and voted in 1994. Not all of us had the same dream vision, just as not all of us remember the past in the same way.
Many of the contestations in the present are steeped in those different views of the past.
For some among us, after all, the past has been dressed up as nothing but suffering and oppression. For others, the past was a time of prosperity and efficiency. Both images are false.
The Black people who were victims and survivors of apartheid had lives whose complexity we cannot reduce to nothing but the consequence of white supremacist politics, repression, and violation. Similarly, white beneficiaries of apartheid must come to terms with how they also had their full humanity denied them amid the privilege granted them in a white supremacist order.
Njabulo Ndebele intimated as much in some of his essays from the period published as Rediscovery of the Ordinary (1991).
The textures of freedom and unfreedom have changed over the last 25 years. That poverty still has a predominantly Black and feminine face, and that the “miracle” wrestled from the chaos of the early 1990s would be known as the most unequal society on the planet is not just tragic, it’s debasing.
The post-millennial, post-apartheid inequality into which many have been born is risible. Those young people will shortly be the majority of the people who live in this part of the world, and it is to their future that political parties and politicians must turn their attention.
The days following April 27 1994, when we queued to cast our votes in South Africa’s first democratic elections, were ones of elation. Mandela, whose face appeared on the posters for the ANC, was destined to complete a chapter as one of the last great men of history, as JM Coetzee would describe him later, after his death.
He would go from being the most famous prisoner on Earth to being the most famous president. None of us could have anticipated how the weight of history and the power of mass mediation would turn the astute political strategist and eloquent lawyer fighting apartheid in its citadels of power, the infamous “terrorist” of the Western and apartheid imaginary, into the domesticated figure of the new millennium.
The widespread misremembering lay in the future, as did the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its revelations and reminders of just how deep the horrors of South Africa’s past were. Many were still reeling at the loss of Oliver Tambo and Chris Hani. The massacres of the Natal Midlands were ongoing; the Inkatha Freedom Party had only been added to the ballot at the last minute.
But the air of celebration eclipsed the uncertainty. When Albertina Sisulu nominated Mandela as the first president of the Republic of South Africa in the first democratically elected Parliament, it seemed, even then, almost unreal.
The footage is available on YouTube. It remains a poignant moment in the history of this country, not least because many of those in the film footage are no longer alive. The past is also the country of the dead.
On May 10 1994 the Union Buildings became the focus of world attention, much like the Berlin Wall had been in November 1989. Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi were present, as were Yasser Arafat and Benazir Bhutto: all dead now. That’s the problem with history, or time: it only moves forward, and erases people from our lives; we are all mere mortals.
Now that we have once again cast our ballots, we await the occasions of state at which our commitment to democratic governance will be reconfirmed in public. We have new uncertainties and new problems, in addition to the ones inherited from before those seemingly fateful and fated days between April and May 1994.
We have unfinished business from the distant past — questions of land dispossession unaddressed, issues of colonial and apartheid spatial dynamics in our towns and cities that affect the life chances of the majority, the poor, in the most unequal society in the world.
We have urgent business from the more recent past, the foetid pollution of corruption, maladministration, theft of state resources and non-delivery of services.
For many who were born after those April and May days a quarter of a century ago, the act of voting may not have the intimate and affective value it has for some of us who had survived the apartheid nightmare.
And this is as it should be. Their whole lives have been lived in political freedom, even as they were subjected to economic inequality and demands for fraternity. But as Coetzee pointed out in his Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech (1987), fraternity is inextricably linked to freedom and equality.
In contemporary South Africa we dare not dream of true freedom and the fraternity it would bring all of us, even in the compromised and compromising imagined community, which would be “the nation” invoked and dreamt of so often, until we can effect equality.
The ANC under Cyril Ramaphosa has been returned to political power by a reduced margin of victory. The party and the administration it is expected to form after the presidential inauguration on May 25 have hard work ahead to rid themselves of corruption (not just to mask it or to defend it or to explain it away as it had done in the recent past).
The opposition parties have similarly difficult work ahead, keeping a keen eye on the governors to ensure transparency and accountability. But most of all, all 58-million people who live here have a duty to recommit themselves to the best and most relevant parts of the dreams we had in April and May 1994.
The young of South Africa, who will outlive most of us into the second half of this century, when most certainly all of those currently elected to political power will be dead, will inherit a country and a world made by the choices of their elders.
As compromised as we may think the present, we have much for which to thank the dead when we look at what does work in this society.
The second half of the 20th century will be blighted by global climate change and its effects, including water and food insecurity, and the political instability resulting from these as millions of people migrate away from scarce resources towards what will seem like plenty.
Young people must return to electoral politics, because the folks who vote now will determine their chances against problems created in this time, here and now. We don’t have another 25 years.
Angelo Fick is the director of research at the Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute