The Digital Journalist
Canon Know How
Tough Past, Tough Future
South Africa After 10 Years of Democracy
November 2004

by Peter Bendheim

In February 1990, Nelson Mandela walked his first steps of freedom, after having been imprisoned on South Africa's notorious Robben Island for 27 years. Although the nation's first democratic elections only took place four years later in 1994, this moment symbolically represented the last days of the apartheid system (meaning "apart-ness" or separate development), which had institutionalized racial oppression for decades and seen South Africa become a pariah state.

I remember the moment well as we gathered around television sets to see a glimpse of the man who had been so effectively hidden from many South Africans for so long. Those involved deep inside the networks of the liberation struggle obviously knew full well what he looked like and what he stood for. So effective was the repressive machinery of the state that ordinary South Africans were led to believe that Mandela stood for communism and would wreak revenge against whites in general, without discrimination for the many white liberals who, both silently and as activists, worked against apartheid.

What we saw that day, and in the speeches he made after his release, was a gentle and caring man; someone who held no grudge against his oppressors; someone who called for unity, tolerance and nation-building. For most South Africans, that day was a high point of emotive and profound optimism; just about everyone in this country of some 40 million saw a chance to regenerate a nation without recourse to bloody civil war, and a chance to take up a place proudly within the society of world states.

It's hard to believe that barely 14 years previously, in 1976, South Africa was a tinderbox ready to explode. Since Sharpeville in 1960, when 69 demonstrators were killed for protesting against the pass laws (documents that had to be carried everywhere indicating permission to live and work in specific areas), the state had effectively repressed all opposition by either banning or imprisoning people without trial. Others mysteriously disappeared, or supposedly hanged themselves whilst in police custody. Political movements such as the PAC (Pan African Congress) and the ANC (African National Congress) were banned, and the trade unions crushed.

But, in June 1976, the world saw horrific images of schoolchildren in Soweto, shot and killed while protesting against the apartheid education system. Sam Nzima's internationally famous picture of the dead young student protestor, Hector Peterson, holds the same sort of emotive power for South Africans as Eddie Adam's picture of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a suspected Vietcong did for those against the war in Vietnam.

After the 1976 riots, activism against apartheid gained increasing momentum. New political movements emerged, such as the United Democratic Front, which was effectively the legal arm of the underground struggle, and the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions. A combination of external pressure from sanctions and increasingly ungovernable "townships" within the country signaled the end of separate development. Increasingly, the mindset of whites and other minorities in the country had changed to the point that apartheid was seen as morally indefensible.

South Africa's first democratic election was held in April 1994, under an interim constitution, with the ANC winning 62 percent of the vote. Since then, the country has embarked on major reconstruction and development, under a liberal constitution that was universally hailed. In 1999, after the second democratic election, Thabo Mbeki took over the presidency from Nelson Mandela, who remains - without question - the iconic figure in South Africa's long history.

Despite South Africa having managed to unburden itself of a past characterized by institutionalized racism, the road to full democracy is a long and painful one. Elections and the right to vote do not transform nations overnight, and South Africa has numerous issues and problems to contend with.

Poverty is one of those issues, and the gap between rich and poor will take generations to narrow. In many rural areas, little has changed for generations and for many, access to simple survival basics such as food, water, shelter and electricity are still a distant dream. High unemployment continues to be a major, if not growing, concern. The explosion of the HIV/AIDS pandemic into the most productive sectors of South African society has created huge numbers of orphaned children, and the government has been very slow to implement an effective retroviral treatment program.

Crime and violence exist at levels that would be considered unacceptable by western standards and threaten both foreign investment and the growth potential of tourism which is extensive, given South Africa's unique natural assets, such as its vast and beautiful landscapes and rich wildlife. And racial tensions, almost unknown amongst the better-educated kids, have to some extent been repolarized in adults now that the honeymoon period of the early 1990s is over, and expectations have been slow in realization.

It's still a beautiful country, struggling to find its feet a mere decade into democracy and freedom. A nation of many people bonded by a love for the land and the hope that all may find prosperity out of a tough past whose legacy lingers on tenaciously. A nation of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, but above all, a place that is home, rich in the deep mystery and dark earth that is the continent of Africa - the birthplace of Mankind.

© Peter Bendheim

Peter Bendheim is the managing editor of MetroBeat magazine, a post-apartheid publication with a monthly circulation of nearly 400,000 copies in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. In addition, he is an award-winning social documentary photographer who contributes images to this and other publications. "I'm intrigued by the ironies and contrasts of urban life in post-apartheid South Africa," he says.

Bendheim is currently working on a number of documentary projects, including "Roadsides," a comprehensive series about roadside shrines to those who have died in road accidents across the country. His work can be viewed online at