20 years on
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Date: 9 February, 2010

Photo: South Africa The Good News


'When we heard the news, everybody flocked on to the streets in shocked disbelief. The previous year had been one of incredible brutality and oppression.'

On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela, one of the most important leaders of the 20th century, walked free from prison.

Surefish asked Isobel Frye, Director of Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute (SPII), a partner of Christian Aid since 2007, about the events before and after Mandela's release.

1) When did you start to realise that change was afoot?

When we heard on February 2, 1990, that the African National Congress, the SACP and PAC had been unbanned, I was working at the law firm that I would later article at.

I had just finished High School and was waiting to begin studying Law at the University of Cape Town later that month. The law firm was situated in the heart of Cape Town, a block away from Parliament.

When we heard the news, everybody flocked on to the streets in shocked disbelief. The previous year had been one of incredible brutality and oppression.

The ‘MDM’ or Mass Democratic Movement had organised resistance campaigns which the police met with force; tear gas, baton charges and indiscriminate detentions marked every peaceful gathering.

2) How and when did you hear the news that Nelson Mandela had been released?

On the day of Nelson Mandela’s release, I was staying with a friend whose mother, an English professor lecturer at UCT, had been a member of the ANC when they had lived in the UK.

There was no question for any of us – we were headed for the Parade, and the sooner the better. We decided that we needed to have an ANC flag – a week before to own one would have had you jailed so it was not the type of thing that anyone had lying around.

At that hour the best material that we could find at that hour on a Sunday morning were black, green and yellow pillow cases which we slit open and stitched into a flag onto a broomstick.

We then jumped into an old white Volkswagen beetle, and tore along De Waal drive along the lower slopes of Table Mountain with the blue sea dancing in Table Bay. The roads were packed. Everybody had some home made flag or emblem of the ANC.

Cars hooted and people waved to all and sundry. The emotion was incredible. The long wait for Mandela to arrive at the parade just raised the sense of united anticipation.

When he finally appeared on the balcony of the City Hall people were initially silent and then started jeering the man who had epitomised freedom and liberation but also sacrifice and sorrow to so many people for so long.

3) How has South Africa changed over the past 20 years, and is it better or worse than you imagined when you realised that the country was truly changing?

There is no question about the fact that South Africa has changed dramatically for the better since Mandela was released. The campaign of state terror was merciless.

Today it is almost unbelievable that such a small minority of South Africans could wield such totalitarian control for so long, but it was only due to the fact of the massive state operations aimed at destroying revolt against the oppression.

People were robbed of their South African citizenship and forced into reserves which were then granted nominal ‘independence’ from South Africa. Young white children felt justified in swearing at elderly black grannies. Grown up men were referred to as ‘boys’ – a remnant of the view that black people were somehow never quite fully grown people.

Officially the apartheid government justified their policies on the fact that whites had to look after black South Africans until black people had been able to develop fully as people.

The fact that this a an acceptable state of affairs is no longer acceptable is in itself a huge achievement. However, the fact is that almost half of South Africans still live in poverty and destitution and face survivalist choices to procure sufficient food for themselves and their children.


Destructive coping mechanisms have to be chosen every day by women seeking to feed their children, such as taking on multiple unprotected sexual partners in exchange for food or money. In a country with high levels of HIV infection, that is a slow suicide.

The economic growth path is such that we are not able to create the numbers of jobs that we need. About 34% of working age people are unemployed, and that includes those who have given up trying to find a job.

There will always be contestations around power and control and allocation of resources. The control of the economy that white business had under apartheid remains virtually unchanged.

The interests of business do not find favour with arguments about redistribution, and hence South Africa is one of the three most unequal countries of the world.

The fact that this state of affairs appears to be accepted, that we are not pulling out all the stops to change this, that is depressing. We are a highly divided society in which poor people cease to be visible or audible.

That marvellous sense 20 years ago that we would achieve all that we had dreamed about – that the lofty principles of the Freedom Charter would form the bedrock of our society – that has disappeared. That is the sense that we need to regain as we celebrate 20 years of Mandela’s release.

4) Did your opinion of Nelson Mandela change while he served as President? Is he still an iconic figure in South African life?

President Mandela was the most remarkable first president that South Africa could ever have had. He led by example and was always humble, but dignified. He faced various personal challenges, but always with compassion and concern and transparency.

I think the greatest sadness that South Africans have was that the apartheid government stole so many years of his life that he could not serve a full two terms as president.

Many things that perturb South Africans today might have developed differently had the leadership of Mandela and the other members of the ANC who too were robbed of their prime either by imprisonment or exile, been experienced for longer.

5) What are your hopes for South Africa in the next 20 years?

Within the next 20 years, I would hope that we would be able to form a better sense of social pact within South Africa. We need to admit honestly the vast challenges that face us in terms of unemployment, inequality and poverty.

I would like to see a social protection system that provided a safety net for all who are failed by the economy in the immediate term. Relative poverty will always exist, but I would like to see absolute poverty - where life is about just not dying as current Deputy President Motlanthe said recently - destroyed.

Currently there are tax funded very basic social grants/ benefits aimed at poor children up to 17 and pensioners over 60 which the ANC government has rolled out quite dramatically. There are however no benefits for any of the 7 million or so that are not employed.


There are a number of positive indicators that the necessary steps are beginning to happen. A National Planning Commission is being set up that will have the task of overseeing policy coherency.

Hopefully the welfare of the people will be at the core of this planning rather than the previous view which held that economic development must be prioritised and the benefits of growth would trickle down to the poor. That did not happen.

In addition, the office of the Deputy President is finalising a National Anti-Poverty Strategy – the first of its kind.

SPII has been central to bringing civil society in to that policy discussion and we hope to ensure that this too speaks to the real needs of people and allows for the voices of the poor to be heard by those who determine their fate.

6) And what about the forthcoming World Cup?

Given the record of our soccer team, Bafana Bafana, South Africans are a bit apprehensive about the World Cup. The new stadia that have been built have however created thousands of casual building jobs that are sadly now coming to an end.

Was the money best used in this way? It is impossible to say that now. It is hoped that South Africans will not seek to fleece visitors for short term gains but will rather see it as a chance to build good friendships and relationships with people who will want to come back time and again.

Civil society work linked to poverty until fairly recently has been limited mostly to welfare or relief work for the poor. In countries that have either full employment or at least a certain protection for the vulnerable, that might make better sense.

In a country such as South Africa however we really need to shift people’s appreciation on the causes of poverty. The foul legacy of apartheid in essence is that the largely extractive nature of the economy just does not provide decent jobs for the majority of the potential workforce.


Had South Africa focussed on expanding a productive base last century rather than concentrating on mining and agriculture, our growth path and choices would be very different today.

When Malaysia and other Asian countries began their massive economic development policies in the middle of last century they did not have to face the obstacles of globalisation and global production chains that we do today.

Trade rules as set by the WTO and other bodies seldom favour developing countries. Capital is able to act very differently today than it was then; capital was invested in productive ways for periods of time before returns were expected. Today speculative global capital is elusive and shies away from investment in productive ventures.

SPII would like to contribute to having these questions asked and innovative alternatives found by policy makers, academics, business and civil society in general.

The returns are difficult to quantify in any log frame, but already, four years into our existence we can see where good changes have been effected. Christian Aid is viewed as more than a funding partner, but as a real friend to SPII which is experienced in many different ways.

Isobel Frye is the Director of SPII (Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute) based in Johannesburg, South Africa

About SPII

SPII is an important ally for Christian Aid in the alleviation of poverty and injustice in South Africa, where many people are still forced to live on less than $2 a day.

SPII, through their research, campaigning and advocacy work within the country, have made momentous achievements with significant ramifications for South Africa’s poorest. 

These include an increase of the maximum qualifying age for child benefit from 16 to 18 and a reduction of the minimum qualifying age for pensions from 65 to 60.

To find out more about SPII’s work and impact you visit: www.spii.org.za

Read Surefish writer Charlotte Haines Lyon's series of interviews with people from South Africa

Read an interview with actress Sophie Okonedo about the BBC drama Mrs Mandela