Opinionista Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar 4 May 2017

Marking 23 years of (what passes for) freedom

We must give pause as we mark 23 years of democratic rule. We must give pause because we remain trapped in the shadow of that dream.

Last week, South Africa commemorated its moment of freedom, but instead of simply celebrating and observing the day, we must use this moment as a critical opportunity to confront what it means to be free after 23 years of democracy. Freedom has not necessarily meant that South Africans are better off economically or that equality is alive and well across our country. Can we truly be free when so many people, millions of South Africans, suffer under the weight of poverty, unemployment and inequality? Can we truly be free when structural inequality, racism and patriarchy continue to dominate both our headlines and the lives of far too many?

We must give pause as we mark 23 years of democratic rule. We must give pause because we remain trapped in the shadow of that dream. We remain trapped in the narrative where our story of freedom has been captured and selectively remembered and shared. We remain trapped in that dream because we have been complacent.

The political freedom that was negotiated and brokered in the lead-up to 27 April 1994 has its flaws and imperfections – imperfections and flaws that currently play out under a Zuma presidency, however, imperfections and flaws that are acutely highlighted in our social compact (or lack thereof) that cannot hold. We are confronted with a society that is not able to hold recalcitrant leaders accountable.

Each day, South Africans wrestle with those imperfections in the face of that compromise and the narrative that freedom has come and that the dream is alive. South Africans each day must endure the burden of economic inequality, unemployment and poverty. All of which is disproportionately borne by black South Africans – an untenable situation that must be arrested, confronted and corrected if we are ever going to aspire to the values and vision articulated by our founding mothers and fathers.

The true narrative of that dream keeps slipping from our grasp. The only option is to accept that we can no longer hold on to that narrative, especially while millions of South Africans remain trapped in a cycle of despair and hopelessness. Millions wait in a state of purgatory while that narrative of a dream is told. South Africans must step into that chasm to provide alternative solutions that can create a new and more meaningful narrative in order to truly articulate freedom. Freedom that is able to honour the struggle and sacrifices that were made in order to achieve democracy but also freedom that can with real intention tackle structural challenges as well as poverty, inequality and unemployment.

We have truly been patient and have understood the challenges that our leaders must contend with. We have waited for our leaders to address the systemic reasons for poverty, unemployment, inequality and the societal ills that we must be stomach. However, much of that wait has been in vain where our patience and understanding have been squandered by leaders across the political spectrum. Our goodwill has been squandered. That patience has been wasted in the waiting halls of local municipalities, provincial governments and squandered by national government.

The Marikana massacre, state capture, the presidency of Jacob Zuma, the Gupta family and the growing sense that our government is consumed by corruption, malfeasance, ambivalence and deceit have been forced down our throats instead. The marking of 23 years of democratic rule cannot be divorced from this reality when one considers how much pain and suffering continues in a free and democratic South Africa.

Yet, we still have those that continue to defend the perverse legacy of apartheid or colonialism or deny that racism and the pervasive culture of patriarchy is not real or present in our society. We must tackle these perverse and abusive systemic issues head-on with the right type of intention and not pretend that it does not exist. This is not a situation to pretend that we are in “Rome, and do as the Romans do”.

The work that is required is not simply about saying the right things or about smoke and mirrors, but rather about a real commitment to address the real issues that confront millions of South Africans. It is not enough to talk about inclusive growth or radical economic transformation or game-changers. We must hold our leaders to a higher account and demand more from them because being sold on a dream has cost us all dearly. We must look more closely and carefully at what is being said and we must go beyond the words and the spin that currently is focused on radical change and economic transformation. It is not enough to talk about disruption but rather we must interrogate the intention that underlies that talk. We will have to disrupt the system if we are ever going to regain our power.

South Africans must also consider where real power resides and this consideration must complement the need to ensure we have the right mix of intention with the right type of leaders. It is the only real way to secure a different narrative and an alternative to the binary options of freedom and being unfree that surfaced last week as we marked 27 April. The Zuma years have highlighted the stresses and fractures in our society but, important, also reminded us where true power sits.

The past few months have highlighted very clearly that real power to effect change is political. That change does not sit with civil society, business, trade unions or with former political leaders (or their legacy foundations). It should concern all of us that power does not reside within the hands of our communities. Instead, power to affect the lives of millions of South Africans sits in the unseen offices and corridors of our political parties. If we continue to allow power to reside there and separate from the people then South Africans will continue to be trapped in a vicious cycle of deferred dreams, false narratives and deceit. The fight for our freedom cannot be championed from afar but will require the people to take back their power to secure our collective future. DM

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