Opinionista Fezisa Mdibi 8 May 2015

Who is free on Freedom Day?

Those who have no financial alternative still live under rules strikingly similar to Apartheid law. And it provides a startling insight into that most basic human right – the state of free association between human beings – two decades into democracy.

It’s always the day you aren’t carrying an umbrella,” smiles the toothless man standing beside us under the shelter as we wait for the heavy rain to subside. We’re in Albert Park in Durban visiting a friend who rents a flat here. It’s Freedom Day and she has invited four of us over for lunch. We live far from each other, so we look forward to catching up. She comes down to open the foyer door for us, and the security guard watches as we sign the visitors register.

As we walk into her flat, we are welcomed by the lovely smell of the food she has prepared for us. Lianna La Havas sings softly in the background. We all sit down to eat. A little while later there is a knock on the door. The security guard who signed us in downstairs peers at us through the burglar gate and calls for the person who rents the place. Our host gets up and a hushed exchange follows at the door. She turns around, visibly embarrassed, and tells us that the security guard insists that no more than three people are allowed in the flat at a time.

It’s the rules,” he says. We are in the middle of our lunch but two of us have to leave. Our host and one friend offer to stand outside the building while we finish eating. It’s still raining hard. My partner, who is white, is incredulous. He tells me his parents had to do exactly the same thing during the Apartheid regime in the presence of people who’d been banned. He was amazed when I replied that actually this kind of social restriction is commonplace in central Durban, where I worked and lived for several years.

Between 1950 and 1990, more than 2,000 people were banned in South Africa. Their banning orders prevented them from speaking to more than one person at a time or from speaking in public. In 1972, Winnie Mandela was convicted of having visitors at her house while under a banning order, later set aside on appeal. Steve Biko was banned the following year.

Albert Park has a large population of foreigners and migrant workers. Not many people in this part of town have the privilege of living with their families. They are here to work for their families back home – wherever their homes are. Having lived in India, I know all too well how in a strange new place, social interaction is an essential lifeline for the spirit.

Banning orders under Apartheid kept people in solitude and hindered contact with like-minded others. One of our struggle heroes said, “They made you a nobody, completely wiped out your identity.” As we Africans say, we are who we are through other people.

Yet decades after banning was abolished in South Africa, inner-city residents in Durban continue to experience the same abhorrent violations of their most basic human right of free association. When we suggested that our host report the matter to the Human Rights Commission, she replied, “Where else will I find an affordable place to live?”

When we celebrate Freedom Day, we usually talk about how the struggle has come to an end. What happened in Albert Park was an indication that the more things change, the more they stay the same. For such a rule to exist selectively in the new dispensation is just deplorable. How can it be an offence for more than three people to be in one room? How can the basic rights of South African residents continue to be violated twenty years into our democracy? On Freedom Day!

The night before, we had been invited to stay over with another friend in Umbilo. We’d arrived at her flat at midnight. There was no register to fill in and no rules for visitors. We had talked over breakfast about what it meant to be a young black person in our times, what we felt, what we experience every day.

Leaving the ruined lunch later in the day, I remembered the conversation: “How do we discuss South Africa from a black perspective without sounding bitter and angry? How do the celebrations every year on Freedom Day connect with the core problems that black people face every day?” DM


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