The celebrations held a special poignancy as it was the first “Freedom Day” since the passing of Mandela, the anti-apartheid icon who died in December at the age of 95.
His name was evoked several times by South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma during a ceremony attended by around 5,000 people under bright autumn skies outside the ornate Union Buildings, the seat of government.
“Our country continues to contribute to building a better Africa and a better world, building on Madiba’s legacy,” he said, referring to Mandela by his clan name.
The ANC under Zuma has seen its star fade since the heady days of the liberation struggle against white domination and the one term in office served by Mandela, who devoted his formidable charisma and charm to the cause of racial reconciliation.
A cartoon in the Sunday Independent depicted a black female voter happily putting a check mark on Mandela’s picture in 1994 next to the letters ANC. In 2014, the same woman angrily marks an X over Zuma’s picture.
Critics say graft is widespread and that many ANC politicians are more interested in self-enrichment than service.
“For most South Africans things are not as clear as they were back in 1994,” the Sunday World, which has a mostly black readership, said in an editorial.
“Now we face the cold hard facts of corruption, condescension and naked contempt from those in power.”
Zuma himself is in the spotlight because of security renovations worth over $20m (€14.4m) that were made on his private rural homestead.
Still, Polls suggest the ANC will maintain its thumping majority.
The government can point to real successes, such as a fast-growing black middle class and the laying of the foundations of a welfare state with 16m poor people, about a third of the population, now receiving monthly income grants.
Zuma noted that 83% of households now had sanitation compared to just half in 1994 and that the government had built close to 3m homes over the past 20 years.
Meanwhile, Pretoria was also conferring National Orders, its highest honour, yesterday, to individuals who have made contributions to the nation. Among those honoured was the British musician Jerry Dammers, who wrote the 1980s song ‘Free Nelson Mandela’.