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‘Many reasons to celebrate despite setbacks and mistakes’

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As we reflect on 30 years of freedom, we must remember the injunction to tell no lies and claim no easy victories. There are those who point to the continued challenges we face as a country and rejoice, because it gives them an excuse to take us back to a past we left in 1994, says ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula. – Picture: Independent Newspapers

By Fikile Mbalula

As we look back at the 30 years of democracy, we have come a long way on a journey that had its ups and downs.

The ANC slogan for the 1994 elections campaign was “Sekunjalo ke Nako. A Better Life for All”. The enduring commitment to a better life for all, we took into the government when one of the founders of our democracy, Nelson Mandela, was sworn in as president on May 10, 1994.

Two years later, with input from more than 2 million South Africans, we adopted our Constitution (1996), which urged all of us to “heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights, to improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person”.

This has been the guiding mantra of the ANC-led government over the 30 years. During the first administration, from 1994 to 1999, we had to undo hundreds of apartheid laws and policies and replace them with laws that represented all South Africans.

We had to build a united and non-racial state that served all the people, including incorporating 13 different departments of education, health, social development and so forth.

At the same time, the government, led by Mandela, had to immediately start improvements in the quality of life of South Africans. Many of the programmes continue until today, and form the basis of a comprehensive social wage to leave no one behind.

The free healthcare to pregnant women and children under 5 years means that 30 years later, we managed to reduce child mortality from 42 per 1,000 live births in 1994 to 23 per 1,000 in 2024, according to the UN. Black women were treated as legal minors before 1994, but today, more than a million of them are homeowners as a result of the ANC housing policies.

Between 1996 and 2015, 7.6 million households more are living in formal housing. More than 80 percent of households in our country have access to piped water in their houses or yards; households with electricity increased from 76.6 percent in 2002 to 84.4 percent in 2022.

Whereas in the past, access to social security, including basic rights to a pension, was based on race and gender, democratic South Africa is implementing a comprehensive social security system which provides social insurance to employed workers (Unemployment Insurance Fund and provident and pension funds), a safety net to the unemployed and indigent through the social relief grant and grants for the elderly, people with disability and children.

Tata Mandela was passionate about children and young people, and believed in education as a means to change the world. By expanding access to education – the building of schools, employment of teachers, the national school nutrition programme, no-fee schools and scholar transport – we have contributed over the past 30 years to redressing past injustices.

For instance, a mere 10 percent of black South Africans born in the 1950s and 1960s completed 12 years of education. By contrast, those born in the 1980s, who completed their schooling in the late 1990s, saw the figure rise to about 30 percent. According to 2021 General Household Survey data, nearly 60 percent of young black South Africans attained the milestone – this means six in 10 complete Grade 12.

Over the past few years, candidates from “no fees” schools have been increasingly constituting the bulk of Bachelor passes, 65 percent last year.

More than 98 percent of children ages 7 to 15 years are attending school, with attendance in the mid-90s for children 16 and 17, with high drop-outs from ages 18 years, which must be addressed.

Curriculum reforms mean that we work towards subjects that equip learners for the world of work, new areas like robotics and coding, as well as languages, maths and science.

The introduction of Grade R means all children can start school with the advantage of early childhood development. More than 90 percent of 7 to 15-year-old children with disabilities attend school.

Over the past 30 years, we transformed the post-school education and training sector, to address the changing demands of our times, including universities, technical and vocational education colleges (TVET), artisan training, learnerships and skills programmes and community colleges.

Today, there are about 1.3 million students enrolled in higher education, 82 percent in public universities and 18 percent in private institutions.

Through the National Students Financial Aid Scheme, the number of students from poor households increased from 460,000 funded at universities and TVET colleges in 2017, to 847,423 by 2022. This year, a bursary scheme for the so-called missing middle was introduced, set to support a further 60,000 students.

There are many more areas where change is tangible, in sport, the creative sector, transport and the economy, to name but a few. Where we made mistakes, we are taking steps to correct and renew.

The journey to human dignity and a better life for all, for which millions of South Africa voted on April 27, 1994, is therefore on track, despite setbacks and mistakes.

As we reflect on 30 years of freedom, we must remember the injunction to tell no lies and claim no easy victories. There are those who point to the continued challenges we face as a country – crime, unemployment, gender-based violence, hunger and corruption – and rejoice, because it gives them an excuse to take us back to a past we left in 1994.

The South African people know that the ANC remains committed, able and determined to continue on the journey to work with all the people of our beautiful land to create a country that is united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous, free from the shackles and legacy of apartheid, colonialism and patriarchy. Only the ANC can do this, together.

Fikile Mbalula is the secretary-general of the ANC.