We need to continue asking ourselves if we can celebrate freedom, if rape culture persists at educational institutes, if reports still emerge of teachers making racist statements in class, if some still think it is okay to express their racism on social media, and if xenophobic attacks occur routinely.
“…How many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind…”
– Bob Dylan
Late last year, a group of young people gathered at Lawley Station informal settlement, in the south of Johannesburg.
The nonracial, “born-free” group had come together to feed children ahead of Christmas. They had planned the activity themselves, based on the volunteerism skills that they had learnt through the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation Youth Leadership Programme. The project was small, but successful.
In the midst of the singing of Struggle and other songs, and the general excitement that characterises youth work, one story stood out. One of the group members told of a 13-year-boy who headed a household not far from where the activities were under way. The boy ate during the week at his school feeding programme, but at weekends, without any income, would go hungry.
It was a shocking story for some of those present, but it is not an uncommon one. Statistics South Africa’s recent findings indicate that hunger experienced in households with young people increased between 2010 and 2014 from 13.5% to 16.2%. Freedom may not mean much on an empty stomach. For these youths, freedom may still be, as the Sarafina song goes, “coming tomorrow”.
A Google image search of “Freedom South Africa” throws up a colourful array of pictures: people waving the national flag, Mandela and De Klerk holding hands, and the long voting queues of 1994. Our triumph over apartheid is a success story that is told the world over. The problem is that the story is told as if it has reached its last chapter – with the happily ever after of 1994 being the end. We are starting to realise that we have only completed volume one in a long series of struggles that still need to be tackled. Freedom today is dependent on addressing these issues.
If the Employment Equity statistics released this week are anything to go by, the process of transformation in the labour market is indeed moving along a “stubborn path” with representation of whites at top management at 68.9% – more than six times their representation in the economically active population. This is against the backdrop of South Africa being one of the most unequal societies in the world.
Along with the announcement made by Minister Fikile Mbalula on Monday regarding transformation in sports, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation’s director, Neeshan Balton, said that the statistics raised serious questions around the process of transformation in South Africa. “It points to the unfinished business of transformation post-1994. We have to engage on what transformation means at both a policy level as well as a practical level. There has to be a common understanding of what it entails and an outline of what needs to be done to implement it in all sectors,” he said.
And while the economy and transformation in the workplace may be at the heart of current debates about freedom today, it should not be limited to this alone. We need to continue asking ourselves if we can celebrate freedom, if rape culture persists at educational institutes, if reports still emerge of teachers making racist statements in class, if some still think it is okay to express their racism on social media, and if xenophobic attacks occur routinely.
Freedom may be an individualised concept “to do whatever I want”, but it also needs to be realised collectively to ensure that societal issues are addressed. Mandela’s quote remains particularly relevant: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Entrenching the values of freedom will require partnerships and progressive thinking in schools, universities, newsrooms and religious institutes. It requires a vibrant civil society that can unite on common causes – be it addressing the drought, corruption or access to education; keeping government in check, and partnering with the state in enhancing our democracy. An example of this is the recent appointment of a team of representatives of various organisations in Gauteng, which aims to assist the provincial government in tackling racism and xenophobia.
Perhaps the most important underpinning of freedom, though, is visionary and honest leadership, guided by the Constitution. In his 2014 speech to the UN, struggle veteran Ahmed Kathrada argued that political will at all levels is needed to combat racism. To realise freedom, the same is required.
Disrespecting the Constitution, state capture, lavish and unnecessary spending at government events, corruption, putting individual interests above that of the nation, and the lack of accountability to the public and talk of resorting to violence, all erode the very foundation on which our freedom is built.
Freedom is inevitably linked to leaders attending to the needs of people, not defending political scandals. It would do good to study the lives of leaders of old, whose governance was characterised by the concept of “people first”. In the words of the 7th century ruler, Caliph Umar, who was known for his just leadership, “It is better for me to dismiss one governor every day than to leave a wrongdoer in place for even one minute.”
For South Africans, the answers to obtaining freedom today may well be found “blowin’ in the wind” – either right in our faces or almost intangible or very complex. What is certain though, is that it remains our duty to find the solutions, both individually and collectively, as difficult as it may sometimes be. What we cannot do is “turn our heads pretending that we just do not see”. DM
* Zaakirah Vadi is the Communications Officer at the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. She writes in her individual capacity.