Defend Truth


Freedom Day: We’ve come a long way, and we all deserve a collective pat on the back


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Does our future look bleak? An emphatic ‘No!’ Civil society has begun to breathe again and has been keeping the government in check these past few years. Our independent judiciary, although under constant attack, has proven its mettle over the past few years. And it seems, finally, the ruling party wants to come to the party to begin the internal clean-up campaign.

We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.

Over the past 27 years, I think we have made enormous progress in realising these ideals captured in our Constitution. I could of course remind everyone of the many achievements attained over the democratic period, notwithstanding some significant challenges that remain stubbornly difficult to overcome. In particular, high unemployment, rising inequality and stabilising poverty. For instance, we should celebrate what the ANC has achieved since 1994:

  1. Nine out of 10 public schools are now no-fee schools;
  2. In 1994, there was only an enrolment of 51% of learners in public schools, now 81% of learners are in school;
  3. In 1994, there were only 347,000 students enrolled in universities, now there are more than one million students at universities;
  4. In 1994, only 50% of learners passed matric, in 2018, 78.2% of learners passed matric;
  5. 3.2 million free houses have been built since 1994;
  6. In 1994, only three million people received social grants, now 17.5 million people receive grants;
  7. In 1994, only 36% of people had access to electricity in their homes, now over 84% have electricity in their homes;
  8. In 1994, only 54% of South Africans could read and write, now 94.3% of people can do so;
  9. In 1994, 51% of South Africans had access to clean drinking water, now 88.6% have access; and
  10. In 1994, only R70-million was spent on bursaries for students, R15-billion was spent on bursaries in 2018.

That’s to mention a few improvements — but there are also the bigger issues that are more than just bricks and mortar. Keeping a handle on the non-racial principle rarely gets credited to the ANC and yet one could argue that since Mandela and his reconciliation, it is the governing party that ensured our unity in diversity in all aspects of our daily lives, not allowing a race war to spill over into daily life.

The growth of the black middle class is another such principle that does not get mentioned and yet we have made such steady progress here too.

Our foreign reserves numbers suggest that we have also made good progress in this respect. In 1994 the National Party government left the country in the red, to the tune of $23-billion, which the democratic government had to pay back to both domestic and foreign lenders. Today, as of this month, we have $54-billion in the bank. I’d say that is significant progress.

Most white South Africans that I have engaged with always want to hold on to the belief that the black majority inherited an economically healthy country, which was simply not the case. Naturally, the international financial crisis of 2008/09, as well as the pandemic 10 years later, have caused havoc in all markets and we were not spared, either. Coupled with nine wasted years under the Zuma presidency, it does mean we will have to redouble our efforts to realise not only our preamble, but also the pursuit of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa.

I read an opinion recently that stated that “few anti-Constitution pessimists engage with what the breakthrough from apartheid to democracy enabled politically. These critics are rightly outraged by the socioeconomic ravages most black South Africans continue to suffer. But they largely refrain from questioning the ANC’s failure to use its political dominance to shift state levers towards ending inequality. The party has pursued a predominantly neoliberal policy. This has kept the country’s race-based wealth gap intact, except for the upper echelons of society.”

Although this is true in the main, it does not also take into consideration the international markets. It’s easy to state that the ANC’s failure to use political dominance has resulted in the current inequality gap, but as we have observed, the international financial markets also dictate one’s behaviour. One only has to look at Zimbabwe to take a cue. So, it’s a bit disingenuous to simply suggest the ANC could have done much more. One only has to look at how the rating agencies play politics with the SA market.

Another way of looking at the past 27 years can be through the lens of Karl Marx’s base and superstructure: “Base and superstructure are two linked theoretical concepts. Base refers to the production forces, or the materials and resources, that generate the goods society needs. Superstructure describes all other aspects of society, such as the ideologies that dominate a particular era, all that men say, imagine, conceive, including such things as politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc.

“The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.”

Which is where South Africa finds itself right now.

“The changes in the economic foundation lead, sooner or later, to the transformation of the whole, immense, superstructure. In studying such transformations, it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.

“Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.”

It is evident that the unresolved land question, attacks on so-called “white monopoly capital” and the attacks on our Constitution and the judiciary are all manifestations of this phenomenon. Does it mean our future looks bleak? An emphatic, No! Civil society has begun to breathe again and has been keeping the government in check these past few years.

Our independent judiciary, although under constant attack, has proven its mettle over the past few years. And it seems finally, the ruling party is wanting to come to the party to begin the internal clean-up campaign.

There remains work to be done when it comes to the forces of production and the relations of production, no doubt, but we have thrived as a nation insofar as the superstructure issues are concerned. Much more will always have to be done, but if I look at our collective resilience as a people, I say, bring it on!

A collective pat on the back, I’m sure, is in order. DM


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  • Jon Quirk says:

    Excellent article, though I would quibble with one of the points. “In 1994, only three million people received social grants, now 17.5 million people receive grants” is a statement and function of two conflicting forces, neither of which bodes well for the future, namely population growth putting ever increasing pressure on our ability to provide same with quality of life; we need to keep firmly in mind that our AI age puts an ever-decreasing value on raw, unskilled hands, and opposing this pressure is our seeming total inability to grow employment opportunities except by ever expanding the public sector which has now grown, like the House that Topsy built, to unsustainable proportions.

  • Gerhard Pretorius says:

    Sorry Oscar, but your stats are mostly meaningless. Everyone of your ten brags can be ripped apart. A pat on in the back for everyone while we are swimming in sewerage? 27 wasted and destructive years of twisting the truth to benefit a few indoctrinated cadres. Blah!

  • Michael Sham says:

    Please pass me the sick bag. Clearly Oscar needs another pay rise.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Yes, we have come a long way. We are sitting on a powder keg, with millions of under-educated and jobless young people, which is going to explode in not too distant a future.

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