South Africa: 25 years of Democracy

Photographs by Per-Anders Pettersson

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In April 1994, Per-Anders Pettersson arrived in South Africa to cover the first democratic elections in the country. The election was a major international news event, ANC won a landslide victory and Nelson Mandela became the country's first black president.

From being a repressive, segregated and racist state, a new multicultural and democratic country grew miraculously: South Africa, a rare political success story on the African continent. At the same time, Pettersson's love story began with South Africa. He decided to settle in the country and began to document how this democratic vision would manifest itself to ordinary citizens. With his photographs, Pettersson has captured the intoxicating feeling when the early energy and optimism sprouted, He has followed the emerging new black middle and upper classes, and he shows the grim reality of all those who may live forever on the margins.

In his pictures, we take part in the life of South Africans in big cities, the countryside and in the majority of the large townships.

For South Africa, democracy became a hard-won freedom that brought with it both rewards and new challenges: rising violent crimes, diseases, poverty and mass unemployment. But despite many challenges, the many of South Africa's citizens enjoyed its fruits.

South Africa's political policy, "Black Economic Empowerment", reaped an astounding wealth for a new black elite, and saw a rapid emergence of a new black upper class. The energy generated by these so-called "black diamonds" was one of the most striking aspects of the transition to democracy. Thanks to their success, a frenetic inspirational and entrepreneurial spirit was also promoted among the poorer urban classes.

However, the ANC had inherited a country that had been under embargo for decades. A country where blacks were oppressed and completely without human rights. Now, freedom fighters were brought in to important positions; Ministers, political advisors and general directors came from shantytowns, rural areas and some more or less directly as freedom fighters. Many had not even finished compulsory school and they had no experience of steering and rebuilding a country, which in addition was bankrupt.

In the second decade of democracy, greed and disillusionment began to stifle optimism in the country, corruption became increasingly widespread and the economy increasingly deteriorated. During the 25 years that have elapsed since the fall of apartheid, and the introduction of democracy, developments in the country, and the image of South Africa, have come to change radically. After many years of political mismanagement, South Africa is today a broken country. The gaps between the poor and the rich are among the largest in the world. Unemployment is at a record high and the standard of healthcare, schools and other community services is considerably worse in areas dominated by black South Africans.

Many blacks still live in poverty in the townships and in the countryside, while the majority of private land and capital is still controlled by whites. The difficult and tense situation in virtually all areas of society is highly evident in the lives of South Africans, although hopes for a brighter future are beginning to be felt now. 

The scandalous President Jacob Zuma left his post and he was replaced by President Cyril Ramaphosa. South Africans will go to the polls again on May 8, 2019, and the outcome can be seen as more uncertain than ever due to a decreasing support for the ruling party and stronger opposition parties.