Defend Truth


For the majority of South Africans, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose


Professor Dr Omphemetse S Sibanda is a Professor of Law and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Limpopo. He holds a Doctor of Laws (in International Economic Law) from North West University, a Master of Laws from Georgetown University Law Centre, US; and an LLB (Hon) and B Juris from the then Vista University, Soweto Campus.

Forgive me if I am not in the mood to raise a glass this Freedom Day. Until every South African can enjoy the full spectrum of rights and freedoms promised by our Constitution, these celebrations ring hollow.

As South Africa approaches another Freedom Day celebration, it is hard not to reflect on the irony of commemorating three decades of democracy under the ANC-led government while many fundamental rights remain elusive for a significant portion of the population.

Of course, the ANC-led government deserves recognition for ushering in an era of democracy, breaking the chains of apartheid, and enshrining rights and freedoms in the Constitution. But what good are these rights if they are nothing more than ink on paper for those trapped in poverty and neglect?

Opposition parties should also never be absolved from liability as some have been with the ANC at the centre of dysfunctionality and chaos in the corridors of some local government authorities and in Parliament.

In terms of the concept of the social contract, citizens, through voting, hand over certain rights and powers to the State in exchange for protection by the State. But as we prepare to wave our flags and sing praises to progress since the dawn of democracy, let us not forget that for many South Africans, there are certain rights that remain a distant dream.

Rights such as the right to access basic education without hindrance, and clean water and sanitation, remain luxuries, while adequate housing is a fantasy to those living in informal settlements under conditions of squalor. Does it ever cross your mind that human rights and democracy are overrated?  If you do, then you would appreciate the irony of celebrating human rights when millions are denied the most basic of human dignity.

Our Achilles heels as a country will remain visible in key areas as we celebrate Freedom Day: unemployment, especially among the youth, is not just a statistical abstract. For example, in the fourth quarter of 2023 South Africa’s unemployment rate increased to 32.1%, with 7.9 million people unemployed according to Statistics South Africa.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Freedom Day 2022 — What freedom when life is precarious and poverty all-pervasive?

The unemployment rate, if discouraged job seekers are included, was 41.1%. Youth unemployment also rose to 59.4%. It is a damning indictment of a system that has failed to provide sustainable opportunities for the future generation. While politicians will be toasting 30 years of freedom, young people will still be left to navigate a landscape of broken promises and shattered dreams.

As the UK newspaper, The Telegraph highlighted, “the most deprived areas in 2024 were also deprived under apartheid.” Ten years after the death of five-year-old Michael Komape who drowned in a pit latrine, the poor and marginalised in some communities are still forced to use inadequate sanitation.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Michael Komape’s death in a pit latrine illustrates South Africa’s horror stories of ‘childism’

Historical inequalities stemming from apartheid policies persist, such as the legacy of the apartheid National Party government’s denial of water access to marginalised black communities, primarily in rural areas. Khayelitsha and the former white suburbs of Cape Town, for example, present a stark juxtaposition akin to Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” when it comes to development and the promotion of human rights, despite both being under the governance of the same DA-led provincial government.

While Cape Town boasts affluent neighbourhoods and modern infrastructure, Khayelitsha, a sprawling township within its borders, grapples with systemic poverty, inadequate housing, and limited access to basic services in the mushrooming informal settlements. This glaring disparity underscores the failure of the government to ensure equitable development and uphold the principles of human rights for all residents, irrespective of their socioeconomic status.

Ailing democracy 

Georgetown University political philosopher Jason Brennan in 2016 published a controversial book titled Against Democracy, in which he argued that democracy is overrated and does not empower citizens or create more equitable outcomes.

In rebutting Against Democracy, Roslyn Fuller in her 2019 book titled In Defence of Democracy, correctly argues that the problem lies with the system rather than the people, and that the first thing that must be changed is the system instead of vesting democracy in hands of the elite few.

In the context of our Freedom Day celebrations and reflections, both Brennan and Fuller are correct about one thing: good governance, freedoms and rights can only be protected, promoted and sustained when we have competent leaders and decision-makers. The reality of incompetence becomes glaring when decision-makers are ignorant, insensitive to the plight of citizens, irrational, immoral, and excuse corrupt practices.

A key message to send to state officials and political parties — including leading opposition parties such as the DA and EFF — during the upcoming Freedom Day celebrations should be clear: avoid complacency because it leads to the frustration of communities who have been waiting for service delivery for many years.

Spare us the spectacle of endless local government shuffles and motions of no-confidence that only add insult to injury for the very people you are supposed to serve. While you may remain blissfully unaffected by your own callousness, the communities you neglect are drowning under the weight of their unmet needs, stripped of the rights and freedoms promised to them by the Constitution. It is long overdue that you trade in your theatrics for genuine action and accountability.

As I conclude, forgive me if I am not in the mood to raise a glass this Freedom Day. Until every South African and every “Tintswalo” can enjoy the full spectrum of rights and freedoms promised by our Constitution, these celebrations ring hollow, serving as little more than a reminder of how far we still have to go.

The late former President Nelson Mandela once famously said, “to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” This powerful statement encapsulates Mandela’s unwavering commitment to the cause of human rights and serves as a poignant reminder of the universal need to uphold the dignity and freedoms of all individuals, regardless of race, gender, or creed.

As the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights concluded its 77th Ordinary Session in Arusha, Tanzania on 9 November 2023, Dr Robert Eno, representing the President of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, reminded the participants that “we all have a collective responsibility to defend human rights”. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Trenton Carr says:

    Little hard to collectively defend human rights when the ANC allows and enables the theft of a whole GDP.
    While citizens watch the ANC destroy the mechanism to defend against it.

  • Leigh Lee says:

    Good to read the immortal words of Kris Kristofferson in the story title, but you should at least acknowledge your source.

    ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
    Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free’

    Kris Kristofferson, Me and Bobby McGee

  • Ingrid Kemp says:

    Excellent article. Thanks !

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