Maverick Citizen


What will you do to extend your olive branch this Freedom Day?

What will you do to extend your olive branch this Freedom Day?
Nelson Mandela casts his vote on 27 April 1994. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Richard Shorey)

As we celebrate 29 years of democracy in South Africa, we cannot claim freedom for some, it needs to be freedom for all. What is to be done?

Musician and activist Nina Simone sang:

I wish I could share
All the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the bars
That keep us apart
I wish you could know
What it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
That every man should be free

Simone’s song represents a longing for acknowledging the humanity in each other in order for us to live a life that recognises that we should reach towards the things that bind us rather than those that divide us.

This year on 27 April democratic South Africa turns 29; 27 April 1994 marked the birth of a democratic country as millions of South Africans stood in snaking queues to cast their vote for democracy, heralding a Constitution that guaranteed freedom for all who live in the country. My 11-year-old self may not have been able to vote at the time, but the significance of that day was not lost on me. 

It was the culmination of solidarity efforts to dismantle a brutally oppressive system that dehumanised the majority of our people. Also voting for the first time, South Africa’s first democratic president, Nelson Mandela, cast his ballot in Inanda, KwaZulu-Natal at a voting station near the grave of John Langalibalele Dube, who was the founding president of the South African Native National Congress which later became the African National Congress.

Voters form long queues during the 27 April 1994 elections. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Raymond Preston)

After casting his vote, Mandela said: “We have moved from an era of pessimism, division, limited opportunities, turmoil and conflict. We are starting a new era of hope, reconciliation and nation-building. We sincerely hope that by the mere casting of a vote the results will give hope to all South Africans and make all South Africans realise this is our country. We are one nation.” And with that the country was gripped by euphoria and the promise of “a better life for all”.

We cannot claim freedom if others do not enjoy this freedom, so we are duty bound to ask what is to be done before pessimism and hopelessness take over?

Sadly, freedom and “a better life for all” have not materialised in the way envisioned by Mandela and his first administration, in that many still continue to languish in misery and despair while pessimism and division have re-emerged, threatening to snuff out the promise of freedom. While legally we may be free, we have to ask how this translates in real life when others do not feel so. 

For example, land and housing activist organisation Abahlali baseMjondolo is preparing to hold “(Un)Freedom Day”, so named because they are demanding an “end to state repression, assassination of activists, a demand for basic services for the impoverished, land and decent housing for all”. The organisation has faced much intimidation for daring to demand access to land and housing and in 2022 four of its leaders were assassinated in cold blood. How then can they and the communities they represent, who live in shacks without access to basic services, claim freedom?

The country is facing worrying unemployment, with the expanded unemployment rate, which takes into account those who have given up searching for work, sitting at 45.5%, which is contributing to deepening our levels of inequality. We see it at the robots every day, where more and more people – specifically children – are begging for help, with the stats showing that one in 10 South Africans goes hungry every day. Can they claim freedom?

We cannot claim freedom if others do not enjoy this freedom, so we are duty bound to ask what is to be done before pessimism and hopelessness take over? How can we show each other solidarity in order to transform our society into one of equality, peace and opportunities for all? This means supporting the struggle for access to decent housing and land, supporting calls for a universal basic income that will give people a chance to lift themselves out of poverty. In fact author and economist Hein Marais argues that South Africa’s social crisis mandates it. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: A serious proposal to overcome child hunger… but will we choose it?

I would argue that it’s even more than a right… there is a basis in our Constitution to flesh out this right that would lead to a universal basic income being something that we can say is rightfully ours… a payment that is owed to everyone in society; that the wealth society produces and generates is not something produced by individuals, and that wealth is in fact a common wealth to which we are, in some small measure – and UBI is a small measure – entitled to… Colonialism, apartheid and the history of ongoing inequality post apartheid puts that claim for just dues on a very solid footing,” says Marais.

We cannot have a little bit of freedom for a few. We are obligated to ensure that it is equally enjoyed so that we can bring greater meaning to the commemoration of Freedom Day. DM/MC


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