Maverick Citizen


How do we free ourselves?

How do we free ourselves?
27 April this year marks the 30th anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections. (Photo: Clive Mason / Getty Images)

As we commemorate Freedom Day on 27 April – which marks the first democratic elections in 1994 where anyone in South Africa could vote regardless of race – we tend to ask ourselves the question: are we really free? 

Despite the government’s attempt to “consolidate and safeguard democratic gains” this Freedom Day, the question “are we really free?” has been unequivocally answered by: the increasing unemployment rates, high levels of poverty and inequality, crippling corruption and theft by the political elite and big businesses, 10-year-long rolling blackouts, inhumane land and housing evictions, political killings of our comrades, lack of basic services for our poor communities, killing of women, children and the LGBTQIA+ community, selling of our environment for profit, dysfunctional spheres of government… and the list goes on. 

We have always known the answer to this question: we are not free in real terms, and it is clear that the multitude of crises we currently face are a continuous threat to our freedom, dignity and quality of life as human beings. 

Considering the devastating impact this has, not only on our own immediate realities, but the realities of our future generations, this begs the urgent question: what are WE going to do about it? 

Collective power

Building collective power and struggle is not new to us as a country and people. 

The fact that we are even commemorating Freedom Day, or Voting Day, is a testament to the unwavering combination of hope and struggle of activists and revolutionaries who came before us and still walk among us. 

The United Democratic Front (UDF) was one of the most pivotal anti-apartheid coalitions formed in the 1980s and its 1989 Defiance Campaign was a demonstration of how more than 400 civic, church, student, and other organisations in South Africa could come together in acts of resistance and defiance to the oppressive apartheid regime. 

This set the stage for our democracy and Constitution that we have today. 

Our last general election statistics, according to the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa, indicated a decrease in voter turnout from 73% in 2014 to 66% in 2019. A total of about 17 million people registered to vote in the election, and about 10 million people actually cast their votes.

In the 2021 local government elections, 70% of registered voters refrained from voting for any political party owing to a lack of trust and confidence, while 90% of young people between the ages of 18 and 21 did not bother to register.

While the despondence – particularly among young people who carry a large portion of the unemployment burden – is completely warranted, the upcoming 2024 general elections present a unique opportunity to build collective power towards a common goal. 

The current state of our country must be treated with the same urgency as the UDF and other anti-apartheid movements did when they faced the mammoth task to take down the apartheid regime. 

Civil society sector 

The work of building collective power in the civil society sector has already begun. Over the course of the last year, there have been multiple convenings of different popular movements, grassroots organisations, NGOs and social movements, among others, who are attempting to unite the sector and map a way forward towards realising meaningful change. 

These convenings include:

The inaugural Social Justice Assembly (SJA) convening took place at the Future Africa Campus of the University of Pretoria on 26 and 27t January 2023. More than 50 organisations sent representatives to attend the SJA with the intention to report back and consult communities on the outcomes of the convening. 

At the end of the SJA, it became clear that we urgently need a strategy to address the multitude of crises our country is facing. We developed a call to action which we took back to our respective organisations and community members for further input and agreement. 

“We, as the SJA, call on all who live in South Africa to come together in unity and struggle behind the vision of a peaceful, just and fair society based on real democracy. We call on all our people to stand up, organise and take back our democracy, power and future. No more shall the political and business elites rule the roost. Starting with the 2024 general elections, it will be the people themselves who set the agenda,” reads our call to action

While the civil society sector plays an important role in bringing about change, it cannot see itself as separate from the ordinary people living in South Africa. 

Collective reimagination 

We need the minds, hearts and bodies of ordinary people living in South Africa to achieve collective power and ultimately attain a better life for all. This requires us to take a few steps back and start by reimagining what a renewed country that belongs to, and works for, everyone who lives in it would look like. 

We gave ourselves time and space to do this at the SJA and this is what we envision for our country’s future: 

“[The SJA] stands for a people-centred democracy that restores dignity and guarantees peace, security and justice for all.

We want accountable leaders who consult with and answer to the people, who are active in their communities and who use their positions to fight for the rights of the people they represent.   

We demand an end to corruption in politics and business. We are tired of politicians who use their position for personal gain and for building business networks. We will build people’s power to ensure we can replace politicians who are no longer serving us. 

We stand for an end to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, tribalism and all other forms of social oppression and exploitation in our society. We recognise and affirm the common humanity of all and value the strength in our diversity. 

We want to organise to end inequality and poverty. We will continue our struggles demanding land, a universal basic income grant, quality education, decent housing, water, electricity, proper sanitation and other basic services for all. 

We want peace, security and comfort. We want to feel safe in our homes and our communities. We want an end to violence against women, children, LGBTQIA+ people and other vulnerable communities. We want lively, thriving and vibrant communities characterised by recreation, arts, culture, healing and social cohesion. 

We fight for an economy which puts people before profits. We are tired of our environment being degraded, poisoned and polluted. We want ecologically sustainable development. We want to hand over a living planet to our future generations. 

We demand real jobs and decent livelihood opportunities, better working and living conditions and a fair share for all. 

We are internationalists: the crises we face can be resolved without transforming our region, our continent and the world. We stand for Pan-African and broader international solidarity with other oppressed and exploited peoples of the world. 

We unanimously agree that an urgent task for us is to fight the curse of xenophobia and Afrophobia. We embrace refugee and immigrant communities who are primarily the victims of the same crises we face. 

What we stand for is what we will make the 2024 general elections to focus on instead of the false promises of the elite-driven political parties.” 

What do you imagine our future to look like? DM/MC

The Social Justice Assembly (SJA) is a group of activists from a range of popular and community organisations, social movements, NGOs and other parts of civil society, trying to develop strategies and build collective power to address the multitude of crises our country is facing.


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