South Africa marks Freedom Day, end of apartheid 25 years ago

  • 27 Apr 2019

A quarter-century ago, South Africa's black population was finally able to vote. But long after the brutal apartheid system of racial segregation and discrimination, many say they still struggle to find a decent life.

A woman attends Freedom Day celebrations in Kwa-Thema Township, near Johannesburg. Sporting colourful outfits, South Africans celebrate Freedom Day, the holiday marking the 25th anniversary of the end of systematic discrimination known as apartheid. April 27, 2019. ( Denis Farrell / AP )

Calls for more jobs for South Africa's black majority and respect for the rights of the LGBTI community marked Freedom Day celebrations on Saturday commemorating the 25th anniversary of the end of apartheid.

Singing and dancing punctuated one gathering of about 3,500 people on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

A quarter-century ago South Africa's blacks finally were able to vote, bringing democracy to the country. But long after the brutal apartheid system of racial discrimination, speakers said many still struggle to find a decent life.

"What is the meaning of freedom if many people in a township are unemployed?" asked David Makhura, premier of Gauteng province, which includes South Africa's largest city, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria.

"What is the meaning of freedom if you don't have a job? Or if you don't have a house or land?" Makhura said the government of the African National Congress party is working to get title deeds for black South Africans: "The land must belong to our people!"

In this March 30, 1960 file photo, a mass funeral takes place in Sharpeville, South Africa, for victims of the Sharpeville Massacre in which 69 people were killed when police opened fire on demonstrators protesting against government's apartheid policies and the arrest of their leaders.(AP)

All South Africans must respect the rights of the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex citizens, the Makhura added, saying many in the LGBTI community still suffer violence and discrimination in their workplaces, in church and elsewhere.

Makhura honoured Eudy Simelane, a star on South Africa's women's national soccer team and a gay rights activist who was gang-raped and murdered in Kwa-Thema in 2008. "Eudy did not die in vain," he said.

Kwa-Thema, a black township that was prominent in the struggle against apartheid, joined the Freedom Day celebrations as the anniversary was marked in a low-key way across South Africa. Much attention was focused on the upcoming elections on May 8.

The rally was marked by the bright yellow, green and black colours of the ruling ANC party of the late Nelson Mandela, who was crucial in the decades-long fight to end apartheid.

"I was born in the struggle," said Lucky Ntshabele, 34. "My father was an activist and as a boy I knew the smell of tear gas. From the land of suffering, we have come to Canaan, the land of plenty. But plenty still needs to be done."

Wearing a rainbow T-shirt, Bontle Muhapi said she was celebrating Freedom Day but added that troubling issues must be addressed.

"There's still a lot of racism, there's still a lot of homophobia, there's still xenophobia," Muhapi said. "There are many social ills that we are dealing with."

In this February 13, 1990, Nelson Mandela and Winnie Mandela give black power salutes as they enter Soccer City stadium in the Soweto township of Johannesburg, South Africa, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison. Mandela went on to become the country's first black president after the country's first all race elections in 1994.(AP)

Campaigning for a re-run

President Cyril Ramaphosa marked Freedom Day at a rally in Makhanda in Eastern Cape province.

"On this day 25 years ago, we founded a new country defined by the principles of equality, unity, non-racialism and non-sexism," Ramaphosa said. 

"Despite the passage of time, it is a day we remember vividly – the exhilaration of seeing nearly 20 million South Africans of all races waiting patiently at polling stations around the country to cast their ballots."

Ramaphosa, who as ANC leader is running for re-election, acknowledged that South Africa has many inequalities that his government must address.

"There are great divisions between rich and poor, between urban and rural, between men and women, between those with jobs and those who are unemployed, between those who own land and those who were deprived of it," the president said.

"As we celebrate 25 years of democracy, we need to focus all our attention and efforts on ensuring that all South Africans can equally experience the economic and social benefits of freedom."