This year, South Africans will mark 27 April with some relief knowing that in some ways there is a new dawn. However, South Africans should be reminded that just a few months ago, we were all trapped under the insurmountable fact that the Republic had been subverted to serve the interests of a few.
State Capture was all that mattered. For our leaders, service for the people and service in the interest of the Republic was not even an afterthought. The Zuma years (our lost decade) are a reminder about our own fallacies, about our messy past and the compromises we made. Those years also act as a stark reminder about the dangerous idea that we were exceptional.
We again find ourselves in a moment where we need to choose how this country is shaped. We should be reminded that the liberation and freedom that we celebrate was not handed to us or delivered. But instead, that freedom was paid for in blood, sweat, suffering and sacrifice – sacrifice by not just a few good men and women but rather by millions of South Africans that stood up – against the apartheid.
It is easy to forget especially as revisionist thinking takes root – especially as history is selectively told, retold and often reshaped. But we must collectively elect to do things differently. We must mark Freedom Day as not simply a celebration of our freedoms and rights, which sadly remain a distant dream for far too many South Africans, but as a commitment to act with resolve to shape the Republic.
The triple threat of poverty, inequality and poverty remains an intractable problem that will not simply be solved because of that new dawn. Yet, South Africans continue to look for leadership, searching and hoping that a few good men and women will be able to guide our journey and path. The last decade should be a critical reminder to every South African that we cannot wait for our institutions and leaders to provide the answers. We cannot fall in to the trap of looking to others ignoring our own agency. Instead there must be a collective push by South Africans, from all walks of life, to contribute meaningfully and with vigour to shaping our next chapter.
That chapter will require our government to act decisively against malfeasance, corruption and particularly against those that were complicit in State Capture, subversion of the Republic and criminal activity. However, a simple clean-up operation, whether through the efforts of the Zondo Commission, the various Parliamentary Portfolio Committees, the National Prosecuting Authority, the South African Police Services or the Hawks, will not be enough. The rot and malfeasance extends far beyond those that have been highlighted in the headlines of our newspapers. It extends down to the ward level structures of both our political formations but also our governments.
Corruption, malfeasance and unlawful conduct has not simply been adopted by those entrusted to serve the Republic but rather has been used with precision. The stakes are so high because our body politic has embraced self-interest, factionalism, divisive tactics and the hunger for power at the expense of the Republic. Our body politic has rejected any semblance of service to the people or the Republic. Now the fractures in that body politic cannot simply be plastered over because of a new dawn – those fractures and fault lines will not simply go away nor will they be fixed by a few good men and women.
The narrative of a new dawn will only be a narrative for as long as young children drown and die in pit latrines, or where patriarchy and misogyny continue to assault our people or where justice is deferred. We cannot from our sheltered parapets of privilege continue to ignore the fact that inequality and poverty continue to sentence millions of South Africans to the basement. We cannot adopt a business as usual approach in the wake of all of this suffering. South Africans will individually and collectively need to confront these realities with renewed energy and commitment if we are ever going to honour the legacy of those that struggled for our freedom and liberation.
South Africans must once again take up the struggle to shape our society and its social compact so that we can drive and shape our next chapter through a values-based approach that does not painfully believe that we are exceptional or immune to the challenges of a young democracy. South Africans must once again take up arms to pursue that dream, supported by the values enshrined in our Constitution, and bolstered in the knowledge that we hold our own destiny. Social cohesion and a social compact is not dependent on what our government does or does not do but rather it is dependent on South Africans collectively to answer the call once more.
There are moments for us to be nostalgic, to remember the day in 1994 when for the first time the vast majority of South Africans were able to make a choice – a fundamental choice that should act as a reminder and beacon that it is possible for South Africans to shape their own future. The journey to shaping that next chapter will not be simple because we simply can’t do so by committing to slogans such as Amandla! Awethu! or Wakanda Forever. Rather it will require young and old to come together to retell their story and to shape their own story. It will require South Africans to interrogate our past, our present and the future we want to see – it will require South Africans to discard all holy cows and to critically reflect on our nation and its social fabric.
Of course, we will need convening spaces to do so, of course we will require young South Africans to lead the conversation and those young South Africans will not require an invitation to the table. It may seem impossible, possibly naïve even, but what is freedom if we cannot believe in the idea that citizens have the answers and tools to shape our own future? Who would we be as a nation if we did not believe that the impossible can be made possible?
On Freedom Day and beyond, South Africans must start considering how we shape the conversation and whether we can reclaim our body politic so that it can once more be used as a galvanising and unifying call for all South Africans to once again commit to the idea of a country that is better, more prosperous, humane, woke and alive with possibilities that will confront inequality, poverty, unemployment and suffering. DM