A freedom timeline: 20 years of democracy

The past 20 years have transformed South Africa. Once sanctioned, vilified and on the brink of civil war, the country is now a stable democracy and a respected player on the global stage.

20 years of freedom South Africa

We explore the major milestones in our democratic journey.

Compiled by Melissa Jane Cook and Mary Alexander

27 April 1994 – The first democratic elections are held, with nearly 20-million South Africans forming now-legendary queues outside voting stations to cast their ballots. For the first time in history all South Africans over the age of 18, irrespective of race, had the right to vote. Freedom Day, 27 April, becomes a national holiday.

Watch: Miracle Rising: South Africa voting:

10 May 1994 – Nelson Mandela is sworn in as South Africa’s first democratically elected president.

24 June 1995 – The Rugby World Cup is hosted in South Africa and won by the Springboks. In an epic battle held at Ellis Park against the All Blacks of New Zealand, Nelson Mandela gave incredible encouragement. Rugby was previously seen as a whites-only sport. Mandela presented the trophy to captain Francois Pienaar, an Afrikaner, wearing a Springbok shirt with Pienaar’s own number 6 on the back. This was widely seen as a major step in the reconciliation of white and black South Africans.

Watch: Nelson Mandela at the 1995 Rugby World Cup:

3 February 1996 – The Africa Cup of Nations, hosted in South Africa, is won by national soccer side Bafana Bafana, who defeat Tunisia 2-0 in the final at the FNB Stadium.

15 April 1996 – The Truth and Reconciliation commission is launched by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The commission was set up to hear the truth about the apartheid-era crimes, with amnesty from prosecution granted to those who came clean.

Watch: Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:

July and August 1996 – South African swimmer Penny Heyns shines at the Atlanta Olympic Games in the US, winning gold in both the 100-metre and 200-metre breaststroke.

4 February 1997 – South Africa’s new Constitution takes effect, after being promulgated by President Nelson Mandela on 10 December 1996. It replaced the interim Constitution drawn up at multi-party talks in 1993 to govern the transition to democracy. The highest law in the land, the Constitution and its Bill of Rights sought to guarantee an open, transformative society in which human rights would be entrenched.

18 July 1998 – On his 80th birthday Mandela marries Graça Machel (née Simbine), widow of Samora Machel, the president of Mozambique until his death in 1986.

2 June 1999 – South Africa’s second national democratic elections are held. The African National Congress wins with 66.4% of the vote.

14 June 1999 – Thabo Mbeki is sworn in as democratic South Africa’s second president. He had served as Mandela’s deputy and had taken over running of the day-to-day affairs of government well before the former president retired.

25 April 2002 – South African IT billionaire Mark Shuttleworth gains worldwide fame as the world’s second self-funded space tourist and the first African in space. He launched aboard the Russian Soyuz TM-34 mission, paying some US$20-million for the voyage.

Watch: Wearing a Madiba shirt, Mark Shuttlewoth attempts the Mandela dance aboard the International Space Station:

9 July 2002 – US President George W Bush awards Nelson Mandela the Presidential Medal of Freedom, that country’s highest civilian award, in Washington.

26 May 2003 – South African adventurer Sibusiso Vilane makes history when he becomes the first black African to summit Mount Everest, a climb he would repeat two years later.

Watch a short documentary on Sibusiso Vilane:

29 February 2004 – Charlize Theron wins the best actress Oscar at the Academy Awards for her role in the film Monster. Receiving the award, she said, “I’m going to thank everyone in my home country, South Africa.”

14 April 2004 – South Africa’s third democratic national elections held. The African National Congress wins with 69.7% of the vote, and Thabo Mbeki assumes his second term as president.

5 March 2006Tsotsi wins the best foreign language film Oscar at the Academy Awards. Directed by South African Gavin Hood, the film was an adaptation of an Athol Fugard novel set in Alexandra in Johannesburg, starring Presley Chweneyagae.

Watch: Cast of Tsotsi meet Nelson Mandela:

22 May 2006 – New Statesman places Nelson Mandela at number two on its list of 50 heroes of our time. At number one was Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy campaigner.

18 July 2007 – On Nelson Mandela’s 89th birthday, he, Graça Machel and Desmond Tutu convene The Elders, a grouping of world leaders set up to contribute their wisdom and independent leadership to solving the world’s toughest problems. Other members include Kofi Annan, Ela Bhatt, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Li Zhaoxing, Mary Robinson and Muhammad Yunus.

20 October 2007 – The Springboks defeat England at the Stade de France in Paris to win the Rugby World Cup trophy for the second time.

Watch highlights from the final of the 2007 Rugby World Cup:

20 September 2008 – With nine months left in his second term, President Thabo Mbeki announces his resignation after being recalled by the African National Congress’s national executive committee.

25 September 2008 – Kgalema Motlanthe sworn in as South Africa’s third president of the democratic era.

22 April 2009 – South Africa’s fourth democratic national elections held. The African National Congress wins with 65.9% of the vote.

9 May 2009 – Jacob Zuma is sworn in as democratic South Africa’s fourth president.

11 June to 11 July 2010 – South Africa hosts the Fifa Soccer World Cup, a successful, incident-free tournament held in 10 brand new or rebuild stadiums. Despite national side Bafana Bafana being eliminated in the first round, support for all teams was phenomenal. Spain eventually defeated Netherlands in the final held at FNB Stadium.

Watch: The top 10 goals of the 2010 Fifa World Cup:

July and August 2012 – South African swimmers and rowers win gold at the London Olympic Games. Chad le Clos beat 18-time gold medallist Michael Phelps in the 200-metre butterfly while Cameron van der Burgh won gold in the 100-metre breaststroke. The rowing team of Sizwe Ndlovu, Matthew Brittain, John Smith and James Thompson won gold in the lightweight four race.

May 2012 – South Africa and Australia are named joint hosts of the massive Square Kilometre Array radio telescope. Once complete, the telescope will be 50 times more sensitive than other radio instruments and will provide never-before-seen detail of the universe.

Watch: The Square Kilometre Array:

5 December 2013 – Nelson Mandela dies at home in Houghton, Johannesburg, and the world grieves. Thousands of South Africans laid flowers outside his house, and many more filled FNB Stadium for his memorial service. International leaders joined them, including US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao.

Watch: Nelson Mandela’s life story:

15 December 2013 – Nelson Mandela is buried at his home village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape.

27 April 2014 – On Freedom Day, South Africa celebrates two decades of democracy.

Watch: South Africa celebrating 20 years of democracy: