South Africa: Still an “insurmountable opportunity”?


On 27 April 1994, after a mere four months of preparation, South Africans went to the polls to vote for 19 political parties and, essentially, two options: democracy or escalating conflict. There was fear, uncertainty, political violence…… and no internet, e-mails, cellphones or social media.

Judge Kriegler, chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) from 1994 to 1999 remarked: “This is an insurmountable opportunity!”

Almost 20 million South Africans voted.  There was peace, calm and dignity.

Afterwards Judge Kriegler confessed, tongue-in-cheek, to a business gathering: “Maybe we were too stupid to realise this was impossible!”

Many writers have and are documenting the improvements such as housing delivery, problems like the education system and crises such as the energy supply and xenophobic violence.

Reflecting on 21 years since that first remarkable, inclusive election there are many observations, trends, conclusions:

•        A good constitution in itself will not solve problems.

•        Democracy is not an event. It is an ongoing labour, commitment and sacrifice.

•        People get the leaders they vote for.

•        There are seldom quick fixes, often just a choice between painful alternatives.

•        A tanker turns slowly, so does poverty relief.

•        The South African tanker desperately needs its constitutional Article 9 institutions as (functional) anchors now.

•        The working agenda after the dawning of democracy should include: poverty relief, inequality, growth, corruption.

•        Effective transformation has three elements: reflecting demography, improving effectiveness and ethics.  Currently the emphasis is largely on the first element only. (Prof. Erwin Schwella, Stellenbosch University’s School of Public Leadership) 

Government is there to deliver services to all citizens.

•        Public servants working in government should serve people before political parties. The word “servant” is key.

•        Political leaders should be “servant leaders”.

•        If politicians politicise service delivery they estrange residents and those public servants who did not vote for them.

•        When politicians interfere directly in technical service delivery, public servants work to rule, take no chances, protect themselves.  This is not good for the innovation, calculated risks and committed work ethic South Africa’s problems demand.

•        South Africa does not have enough experienced professional public service servants to cope with political purges or side-lining when new politicians take office.

•        An average plan implemented well is better than a brilliant one that is not. Citizens do not (yet) see the National Development Plan in action.

•        Major plans must be executed through integrated planning, budgeting, decision-making, alignment, monitoring, measuring, correction and intervention.

Government does not create wealth.  If it acknowledges, enables, facilitates and expedites the endeavours of the true drivers of economic wealth – business, manufacturing, industry, mining, technology, people, farmers and many more – the country can move forward building infectious and cumulative hope.

Former Presidents Motlanthe and De Klerk both agree that, whatever, the country’s current problems, that election 21 years ago had to happen.  It was the right call.

Political leader Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert expected the consensus on the principles of a new democratic constitution. “Far more disturbing are the expectations that people have of what a democracy can deliver, and which research shows it is incapable of doing.  This in the South African context is the real burden of democracy.”

Former Cabinet minister Chris Heunis said: “People who are not confused by the situation in South Africa are not well-informed.”

27 April 1994: Something that was so hard-won, is precious and should be nurtured.

Pieter Cronjé was the spokesperson and Director of Media and Public Relations for the IEC in 1994.