Perhaps there were too many noble ideals. Perhaps the founding fathers were too romantic about our future and therefore set unrealistic and unachievable goals. Maybe we ran out of good luck, or good leaders, or good faith. What if we were never the miracle nation anyway, but just an average people who attained freedom because the status quo was no longer sustainable? Maybe that’s why we are failing to be what we envisaged we would be 19 years ago? Democracy shaped a united thriving nation, which is now turning on itself. Freedom Day 2013 is a world away from that beautiful day in 1994. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
With the benefit of hindsight, there were really too many lofty notions at the beginning about what freedom would bring: the land would be returned to those from which it was taken, a chicken in every pot, peace and prosperity, houses for everyone, an equal education system and of course jobs, jobs, jobs. In reality, it was never going to happen, and certainly not how we envisaged it would.
But a lot did happen. In the early years, there was so much excitement when new pastel-coloured housing developments were opened, when people held their breaths as the earth rumbled and then water gushed out from taps in communities which never had running water and when children ran screaming through the gates of new schools. It was a good time in South Africa then, when towns and rural areas began to change as new buildings sprang up and the promise of more was ever present.
It was a time of hope. When the attainment of freedom was manifest in physical and material change to people’s lives, when a common nationhood was still a novelty and when sport introduced a new patriotism never before experienced in our land.
Looking back, it is difficult to pinpoint when it turned bad and when hope disappeared. Maybe it was when the RDP houses started falling down and the taps broke or ran dry. Or when the land and jobs didn’t come, and neither did the chicken. Or when the schools became dilapidated shells, unable to impart the knowledge the children were hungry for. When people became sick and could not access life-saving medication, or when the realisation hit that voting does not bring food to the table or chase away the winter cold.
Violence had always been prevalent in our society, but when political violence finally receded, criminal violence took its place, bringing new fear and hatred to our society. Over the years, violence mutated and manifested in different ways, murders in our homes, armed robberies, hijackings, ATM bombings, xenophobia, child abuse and sexual violence. Where once residential areas were opening up and transforming, they are now closed, walled and locked down to keep violence out.
But our society is breeding violence from within our homes and communities, against the most vulnerable, where no amount of security fences and alarms can help. From two-year-old babies to teenager Anene Booysens, safety from violence was not what democracy brought them.
A different anger is on the streets, where communities and workers protest and demand better living conditions, essential services, more wages or more attention to their inequality. And when they are not heard, they turn their areas into warzones. Sometimes those demanding to be heard die cruel, undignified deaths like the 34 mineworkers who fell on the dusty plains in Marikana.
Perhaps the only thing worse than the anger is the disappointment. Those who brought our liberation are the ones wasting and abusing it. The party we looked up to and celebrated as the midwife of our democracy are the ones pioneering the erosion of the very freedoms they fought for. The state is led by people who seek unbridled access to the resources we are supposed to share among all 50 million of us so that our lives become equitable. They seek to cloak their deeds behind old and new laws which curtail accountability and forbid the exposure of their corruption.
And they lie to us that this was how it was meant to be, that it is the rest of us that are misguided and irrational. They tell us we should be grateful for our freedoms and therefore overlook the rape of public coffers for their personal benefit. They assume that we are the illogical ones for wanting to protect the tenets of the Constitution because the maintenance of their political power takes precedence. They purport to act in the national interest when they hardly know the meaning of it.
And yet none of the evil happening around us should be the responsibility of those in charge. It is the fault of the system they conquered 19 years ago but which must still be blamed for current failures.
Why then was 27 April 1994 such a milestone, “so glorious a human achievement” as Nelson Mandela called it? Why should we celebrate it now when the future we envisaged on that day is now in tatters? How can South Africa celebrate 19 years of freedom when the words Mandela uttered at his inauguration now sound so hopelessly idealistic?
“Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity’s belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all.
“We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
And five years later, on 27 April 1999, on the eve of his retirement as president, Mandela was still dreaming big.
“In these five years we have as a nation laid the foundation for a better life.
“Increasingly South Africans are reaching out to one another to make ours a winning nation. Across the land our communities are seizing responsibility for their own upliftment, in partnership with government… And, though the end of our first democratic government is near, the task of building a better life for all cannot stop, even for a single day.”
So he handed over the reins of government, believing all was on track and the country he gave his life for was in safe hands. But through all the grand plans and big dreams, Mandela also occasionally threw in disclaimers, words to guide us should things go wrong.
At the 1993 Cosatu congress Mandela said the following: “If the ANC does to you what the Apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the Apartheid government.”
Freedom Day 2013 should not just be another meaningless day on the South African calendar. It is the beginning of the 20th year of democracy in South Africa, an opportunity to take stock, to see where it all went wrong, to rescue what can be salvaged and to decide how to fix a broken nation. This time, it is not about ideals and dreams. It is about the reality of a nation in distress.
It is not the time to celebrate democracy and freedom. It is time to defend them. It is time to halt the tragedy of the South African story. It is time to remember Madiba’s words. DM
Photo by Reuters.
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