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South Africa project still has long way to go — our long walk to freedom


Jon Cherry is a business strategist and publisher whose focus is innovation and building better brands.

Let’s recognise that we’re still a young democracy with a grand aspiration for the future. We are not yet anywhere near our journey’s end, but we are some distance from where we started.

On the night of 26 April 1994, I was in a crowded bar somewhere in Stellenbosch.

The next day (the first ever South African Freedom Day) had been declared a public holiday and understandably every student on campus was taking the opportunity to go out and have a bit of a jol. There was a tangible jubilation in the air that we were all about to witness history being made, but also…tear gas.

Through a sash window into the packed bar in which I was standing, somebody who clearly wasn’t as happy about the upcoming holiday, threw a canister of noxious chemical agent that put an abrupt stop to the party. For many of the privileged young people there that night, this was their first personal experience of being tear-gassed. The immediate realisation in that moment was that the dawning of this democracy wasn’t going to have a perfect, harp-plucking beginning.

The gas-throwing incident was a proxy for the underlying social anxiety of the time. While some of us were celebrating the birth of a new, dreamlike promise of national ‘togetherness’; others were mourning the death of a devastating ‘era of separateness’. Specifically, how this envisaged future that we were about to create would be achieved was unclear for everyone, but surely it could only be a better tomorrow than the isolated and fear-laden reality we had all grown up with.

If somehow we had all been given access to a giant crystal ball to see the precise path that we would take over the next 30 years, we no doubt would have been left with mixed feelings.

Our utopian ‘togetherness-era’ hasn’t been plain sailing by any stretch of the imagination.

Sure there have been some moments of great national joy and celebration, but these pockets have been strung together by countless periods of grinding frustration, angst, sadness and rage. Striving to practically build a society that values these hazy metaphysical constructs like equality, dignity, respect and diversity turns out to be a bloody difficult thing to deliver.


What we totally underestimated back then was that dismantling 350 years of violent ‘separateness’ and replacing it with a civilizational ideal at the extreme polar opposite of the continuum is a Herculean task made even more complex under challenging conditions created by powerful, inescapable global and local forces of disruption.

The original plan appeared great on paper, but when you get repeatedly punched in the face by flu pandemics, regional military conflicts, trade wars, financial system wobbles, crime, corruption, maladministration and accelerating climate change — progress towards the ‘as it could be state’ inevitably gets thrown off track.

If we’re overtly cynical about it, what was sold to us reminds me of those nonsense vision and mission statements that get ridiculously printed in the first few pages of the annual reports of big corporate companies. Fluffy, loose statements full of platitudes and audaciously grand notions that have zero meaning but sound lovely as long as the money is coming in. Truth is that it’s only when the money runs out that their real value is tested, serving as beacons on a bleak horizon that you search for while travelling a treacherous, uncertain journey.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Commemorating the past to understand the present and imagine the future on Freedom Day

Right now, the world looks as separated as South Africa did three decades ago.

An unfolding cold civil war is brewing in the ‘United’ States. Hot, complex conflicts are playing out in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The ‘United’ Kingdom is spectacularly no longer willingly united with continental Europe anymore.

Judging by the increasingly depressing global developments that have regularly fueled CNN’s audience numbers since 2001, you would be forgiven for assuming that a ‘permanent state of separateness’ is more of a comfortable default position for human beings than any kind of alternative; so, who on earth as we trying to kid with our definition of freedom?

Divides and separateness

I would offer that the difference is that South Africans still have a very fresh memory of what ‘separated’ feels like. South Africa’s historical path is well-documented proof that this ideological ‘standing apart from each other’ concept isn’t economically or politically sustainable and causes untold damage to a society’s collective well-being.

In our continuing journey then, it might be a good time to take stock of things and perhaps put our lofty ‘better together’ project into context once again.

Let’s recognise that we’re still a young democracy with a grand aspiration for the future.

We are not yet anywhere near our journey’s end, but we are some distance from where we started.

There were many that were convinced that South Africa was choosing to take a route straight to the gates of hell in 1994. But much to their disappointment, we are however still here and still making slow progress.

It doesn’t feel like it now, but our society is statically in a much better place.

Since it was first drafted in 2012, the World Happiness Report has tracked and indexed the world’s levels of well-being on an annual basis. On average the global level of happiness that people experience is decreasing. The only place where this isn’t the case; where there has consistently been a steady improvement in wellbeing, is in Sub-Saharan Africa. Now you may accuse me of grasping at straws here, but — even with all of the mayhem that gets thrown our way — it’s a pattern of improvement that indicates that we are at least still moving in the right general direction.

We may not have finished building the Kingdom of Wakanda just yet, but it’s a far cry from a region of total misery.

And whenever we have put the theory of ‘better togetherness’ to the practical test, whether it’s on the rugby field, the netball pitch or the final moments of the Comrades Marathon just before the 12-hour gun gets fired we catch another moment of it.

When we witness the work of organisations like Working on Fire or the Gift of the Givers, we see the blissful magic of the manifestation of our national strength, the transcendent power of human spirit that our constitution suggests in action and taking us further forward — step-by-step.

The South African project has a long way to go — it’s our long walk to freedom. Honestly, we might never get to see the end destination, but what Freedom Days offer is not a platform to criticise and blame each other for how far we must still go; let’s not repeat the childish act of throwing tear gas into a crowded room. Rather let’s take this time to glance back at how far we have come and renew our commitment to the crazy, mad, ludicrous ideal that we are striving for.

‘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.’ 

taken from the preamble of the South African Constitution 

Let’s keep going. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

    We did get our freedom in 1994, for the first time we were represented in parliament, and free to be anywhere, not feel inferior by looking at the skin.
    We never got access to financial freedom and access to commercial land because the government of the day went to a comfort zone of corruption.
    We will never have to call small children Klein baas again, if you were around pre 1994 this will sound familiar.
    We have all lost as a diverse nation on the wonderful things we could build together to mark the freedom.
    Hopefully we will have an inclusive government which will not have reverse discrimination like BEE as a policy which ended up being a gravy train for elites.
    We need to vote wisely for parties who can govern irrespective of the race or ethnic background, create the confidence and trust we shared as a nation embracing each other and appreciating our differences.
    There are parties with positive voice notes let’s give them our vote.

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