JOHANNESBURG — South Africans on Sunday celebrated 20 years of democracy with song, prayer and praise for those who guided their country into a more peaceful, tolerant era, although some noted that economic inequality and other problems have undermined the nation's promise since the first all-race elections ended white rule on April 27, 1994.
The focus of the Freedom Day commemorations was in Pretoria at the Union Buildings, the century-old government offices where President Jacob Zuma and dignitaries, including foreign diplomats, gathered to reflect on the long struggle against apartheid and ensuing efforts to build a better country.
The anniversary precedes elections on May 7 that are likely to see the ruling African National Congress return to power with a smaller majority, reflecting discontent with the movement that opposed white domination before its candidate, Nelson Mandela, became South Africa's first black president.
In a speech, Zuma said South Africa had a good story to tell, referring to its stable electoral system, its constitutional commitment to human rights as well as advancements in health care, welfare grants and water and electricity in the past 20 years. Close to 3 million houses have been built since 1994, women play a far more prominent role in public life, and crime has declined, even it remains an issue of "serious concern," he said.
"We must not deny or downplay these achievements, regardless of our political differences or contestation at any given time, including the election period," said Zuma, who has been criticized because more than $20 million in state funds were spent on upgrading his private rural home. The scandal comes amid a troubling inequality between rich and poor that the government says is partly a legacy of old racial divisions, noting that the income of the average white household is six times that of a black household.
Election candidate Julius Malema, the expelled head of the ruling party's youth league and now leader of an upstart party that wants to redistribute wealth, has told supporters that events surrounding Freedom Day, which is a national holiday, are a sham because many poor South Africans still lack basic services.
"For as long as you don't have your dignity back, you have nothing to celebrate," Malema said this week, according to local media.
The mood was festive at the Pretoria ceremony, where balloons were on display and many people waved small South African flags. Women ululated and the crowd sang the national anthem, which incorporates several of South Africa's official languages in a show of unity. Some spectators wore African National Congress T-shirts, and danced the so-called "Freedom Dance," which features a raised fist associated with Mandela's show of defiance when he was freed in 1990 after 27 years in jail during apartheid.
There was a military gun salute and a fly-over by air force planes.
Messages of congratulations to South Africa for the 20th anniversary of democracy came from around the world.
"My family and I have enjoyed a special and significant relationship with South Africa over the years," Queen Elizabeth II of Britain said in a statement. "The links between our two countries have deepened and matured since South Africa's transition in 1994, and long may that continue."
Many of the messages delivered in South Africa on Sunday reflected the rough-and-tumble of an election season, rather than the lofty rhetoric surrounding the advent of democracy. The South African Press Association quoted prepared remarks from a speech by Bantu Holomisa, head of the opposition United Democratic Movement and a former member of the African National Congress.
"We cannot allow the country to slide further down this slippery slope of corruption, maladministration and ineptitude," Holomisa said.
On Thursday, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe spoke in London about the 20th anniversary of democracy, noting the challenges that lie ahead as South Africa struggles to overcome unemployment, poverty and inequality. He said: "This celebration does not represent the end of the journey, but the beginning."