South Africa

Changing political landscapes: From Madiba in’94 to Cyril now

Thabo Mbeki at inauguration

In 1994, I voted for the first time in 30 years – in what marked the fall of apartheid and the advent of democracy.

I had always been looking forward to the day a black president would take over the reins of government from a regime of successive National Party leaders.

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That dream became a reality in 1994. Before Nelson Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s first democratically elected president on 10 May, 1994, I had never set foot in the Union Buildings.

It was a building I only likened to the headquarters of those who have for several years oppressed the black masses. Covering Madiba’s inauguration dragged me to it.

At the time, I was filled with mixed emotions – coming to the Union Buildings, which I had earlier shunned. Now, it belonged to all South Africans, including me.

Madiba’s inauguration speech filled me with happiness and a sense of accomplishment: “at last the prayers of the oppressed have been answered”.

His conciliatory nation-building speech – after being sworn in by Chief Justice Michael Corbett – touched many, reducing some, including me, to tears. Amid Western and African pomp, Mandela pledged to “lead our country out of the valley of darkness”.

With scores of heads of state and royalty from across the world, his inauguration was unprecedented in the country – if not globally.

The amphitheatre was packed with political heavies: former US vice-president Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, with former American first lady Hillary Clinton leading the delegation.

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So ideologically diverse was the guest list that it resembled Mandela’s dream of a rainbow nation. Last to arrive was the grey-bearded Cuban president, Fidel Castro, in his olive-green military uniform, who arrived to chants of “Viva Castro”.

Also present, was Israeli former president Ezer Weizman and Yasser Arafat, who served as chair of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Yesterday marked yet another milestone for South Africa – the inauguration of President Cyril Ramaphosa, after a democratic election which has produced a multiparty government of national unity.

Like Madiba’s ceremony, you had the swearing in and a presidential speech – promising to deliver on South Africans’ aspirations.

Considering the different political circumstances, which led to a forced marriage between the ANC, Democratic Alliance, Inkatha Freedom Party and smaller parties, Ramaphosa seemed a worried man.

While it was a moment to celebrate, the mood could not be compared to 1994.

Ramaphosa’s speech tried to convince a politically polarised electorate that change is imminent, from high youth unemployment and a country reeling from decades of corruption.