On the 27th of April, 27 years ago (happy crown birthday to us!), all South Africans of eligible voting age took to the polls for the very first time in a democracy. It brought a renewed sense of hope and healing to a racially-divided nation. 

After that we were dubbed “the Rainbow Nation” and we all learned the meaning of Ubuntu. But when you take a closer look at South Africa, it’s easy to see the darkness swallowing up the rainbow. So you’re not wrong to ask how a country can celebrate freedom, as we did this past Tuesday, when many of its people don’t have access to water, food, shelter and an education? What’s free about Freedom Day?

Well, there are some things we can celebrate, with thanks to International Relations scholar Oscar van Heerden, writing in the Daily Maverick: 

▪️ In 1994, only 36% of people had access to electricity in their homes; now over 84% have electricity in their homes.

▪️ Nine out of 10 public schools are now no-fee schools.

▪️ 3.2 million free houses have been built since 1994.

▪️ In 1994, only 54% of South Africans could read and write; now 94.3% of people can do so.

▪️ In 1994, 51% of South Africans had access to clean drinking water. Now, 88.6% have access.

Okay cynics, we know what you’re going to say next: what about our corrupt government?

We agree that the nine years under former President Jacob Zuma drilled a gaping hole into our democracy. But unlike many other countries, we didn’t just bury it and move on. When Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, the country’s political parties across the spectrum agreed on “The Pact of Forgetting” to avoid dealing with his brutal legacy.

We have the Commission of Inquiry of State Capture, the Hawks and also the Constitutional Court taking those responsible to task. South Africa’s democracy and those upholding it should not be taken for granted. We know there’s a lot more to be done, but we should also applaud how far we’ve come.

This article appeared as part of The Wrap, 15 April 2021. Sign up to receive our weekly updates.