Opinionista Onkgopotse JJ Tabane 7 October 2013

Dear South Africans, let’s talk frankly: Twenty reasons to celebrate twenty years of our democracy – Part One

A slew of negative news reports about South Africa these past few months has resulted in a routine negative response from international rating agencies when it comes to investor confidence. But there are also reasons to be grateful.

The ructions within the labour federations as a result of the fallout over Zwelinzima Vavi does not help matters, and threatens to make worse the horrendous tension in the platinum belt, born out of the tragedy of Marikana. I think we are a nation now so accustomed to bad news that it is possible to forget what tremendous progress we have made over the last twenty years.

From being on the verge of a civil war in 1993 (when IFP leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, threatened not to partake in the 1994 polls), to the ANC facing real or perceived competition in the next elections, we have come a long way. From people stockpiling food ahead of the elections and truly believing they need to pack their bags in preparation for a black government taking over, to an acceptance of an ANC government after four consecutive elections, its been a journey worth taking.

However, last week’s report from the Reputation Institute gives the distinct impression that there is a glimmer of hope, and that most of the negative sentiment abroad is as a result of our own negativity as South Africans.

So, in light of this, I recalled when I was a student leader in 1993 and the questions the young students of Durham University in the UK asked me back then about the impending “bloodbath” in our country. Twenty years later I thought I should reflect on the 20 things that warrant the celebration of our democracy today.

Living here and being bombarded with corruption and crime stories only second to a Hollywood movie script, it is easy to slip into a paralysing cynicism where no good news will excite and bad news no longer depresses you.

So here we go:

1. We have a rights-based constitution.

Many have taken this lightly. We are a long way from the days when we used to have parliamentary supremacy and where a parliamentary majority could pretty much do anything it desired. These days, all of us account to the constitution as a higher power.

2. All citizens, regardless of colour or creed, have the vote.

Look around the world at war to appreciate what stability this treatment of all citizens as equal human being means. This is a long way from the subjugation of white rule, a short twenty years ago.

3. We have freedom of association.

No organization in South Arica is banned. In 1990, the ANC, today the ruling party, was unbanned along with numerous others who shared its vision for a free society. Today many organizations can be formed without fear of being harassed by authorities. While there may be pockets of intolerance amongst some big-headed civil servants or overzealous party hacks, this conduct is thankfully not in the statute books, nor is it policy of the dominant ruling party. Political intolerance is largely from individuals who have misunderstood the meaning of our freedom.

4. Freedom of movement is enjoyed by all.

In 1989 various activists including, Nelson Mandela, spent yet another Christmas in jail. Their movement was curtailed. Thousands of others were under house arrest and many more were exiled. Today, we take that movement for granted. A few years ago we denied a visa to the Dalai Lama, a desecration of what we fought for to realise this freedom.

5. Public facilities and amenities are for all.

When you speak to the younger generation about the fact that not so long ago that blacks were barred from beaches or swimming in the sea, relieving themselves in some toilets or sitting on public benches in parks, they frankly think you are joking. Today these things are taken for granted. It is easy to forget the way we were.

6. Before the dawn of the employment equity act women were precluded from certain kind of jobs and were considered automatically inferior. So effective, in part, was this law that a few years ago there were claims that white women had overachieved their targets and that affirmation that embraced women of all races was misplaced. The reality is that affirmative action has seen white people being the most promoted and appointed of all races. It needs to start working for blacks before it is scrapped. Its introduction however must be supported and celebrated while its effectiveness is improved. Calls of its scrapping are misplaced.

7. The recent noise about the traditional courts bill, the debates about culture and cohesion, as well as recent rumblings about the role of traditional leaders, indicates a sign of the times. The recent decision by the Ministry of Higher Education to give due recognition to African languages at higher learning institutions, and the mooted compulsory introduction of learning of an African language at University, must rank as one of the most progressive decisions on re-enculturation since 1994 – a reason to celebrate reclaiming South Africa.

8. After years of subjugation, the recognition of South African languages as official languages and efforts to ensure their use in conducting the business of government service to the people cannot be taken for granted. The recognition of the Khoi and the San must send a message to those that sought to marginalise these communities in the past and those who have been indifferent in the present that !KEE : XARRA//KE – our unity in diversity – has been given new meaning.

9. While there is a lot of justifiable noise about norms and standards in schools – few will care to remember that we had as many education systems as there were homelands and provincial administrations. The amalgamation of the education system into a single examination for all must have been on a scale incomparable with any transformation project in the last twenty years. The rock bottom matric performance when democracy was born and the ever improving pass rate of the last few years cannot just be brushed aside. With all the teething problems along the way including the redefinition of the curriculum – South Arica has to be acknowledged for having done well to place this important area of national life as deserving of the largest slice of the national budget. None of this means there are not massive challenges – it is important that a thorough assessment of the state of our education is done to design interventions that deal with literacy and numeracy that ranks low on a global scale.

10. Many would argue that some churches, as early as 1990, had a church for the white and privileged and a church for the black and poor. This was a serious embarrassment for an institution expected to be the conscience of society. In a twisted way secular society – by providing a platform for freedom – preached back to the church to change its ways. On the other hand, it is important to recognise the role the church continues to play in being prophetic on the rise of the terrible moral decay that is attacking our freedom. More can be done to ensure that the church is never co-opted by the state but fiercely guards its prophetic presence in the affairs of the state.

In the next instalment of this article I will remind us of how the fight against corruption, as opposed to corruption itself, is a true mark of the growth of our democracy. I will provide ten more reasons why we should celebrate the success of a country that was, a mere 20 years ago, regarded as the skunk of the world. Today this is a country that can truly boast that it is a gateway of the continent to the rest of the world. This has in many ways happened despite our sometimes fallible selves. DM


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