Annually since 1995, we commemorate Freedom Day which marks the first South African non-racial, democratic elections held on 27 February 1994. The first democratic president, President Nelson Mandela is quoted as saying ‘for to be free is not merely to cast off one’s own chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others’. In 2018 in an article for the Sowetan Live, Prince Mashele, urged South Africans to reevaluate what the day means in their own words, within their own communities and without the influence of political rhetoric. Last year, our country celebrated 25 years of political freedom. As we go into the next chapter, it would be amiss to this generation and the next, not to assess in an iterative, non-partisan and fair manner, the progress made to the upfront acknowledged challenges of inequality, poverty and unemployment.
Instead of conveying my evaluation, a purposive selection of societal commentators across professional and personal backgrounds had the blog title put to them and asked to sum up their assessment in a paragraph. The views are their personal reflections and not of their employers, organizations or affiliations. This is South Africa of April 2020. This is South Africa constructively dialoguing.
Cameron Mackenzie, a former Johannesburg city councillor from 2009 and current member of Parliament since 2014 for the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, advances that ‘freedom, unless you know how to use it, is only a word’. He acknowledges the political progress made from the repressive Apartheid state to a constitutional democracy in 1994 however cautions that the current state failure in education and healthcare, amongst others, perpetuates the cycle of freedom not being a lived reality for the majority of South Africans.
Tessa Dooms is a sociologist, director at Jasoro Consulting, a Nelson Mandela George Washington Fellow with several other professional accolades. She notes that South Africa’s democracy is maturing due to an increased plurality, willingness to challenge and test powerful leaders and institutions. She is mindful that our democracy remains fragile due to the failure to deliver development and transform lives. The result, especially amongst youth, is a distrust of our democratic leadership and more precarious, democratic processes. She suggests that the next phase must see us building and unleashing the abilities plus agency of young people for political, social and economic development for all.
According to Russell Rensburg, an expert in healthcare and current director of the Rural Health Advocacy Project, the preamble of the constitution commits us to improving the quality of life for all citizens. He recognizes the significant progress to education and healthcare access but argues that the access is derailed by the quality of services and general commodification of public goods which have delayed the overall realization of freedom.
Nkanyiso Ngqulunga, a law student and exceptional young contributor to decolonial thought, asserts the question highlights the dichotomy inherited from colonialism and Apartheid. For him, the democratic dispensation is a neo-Apartheid version, still unable to understand or meet the needs of the majority, who remain in permanent dispossession and poverty. He calls for socioeconomic justice premised on an African-based transformational philosophy and spirituality that denounces and breaks away from past crimes against humanity to truly fulfil a clean slate of human rights recognition.
He is a management consultant but Melusi Maposa prefers to describe himself as someone who knows a little about a lot of things and a lot about a little things. He responds that 26 years it is not a question of freedom or fallacy, rather both. He emphasizes the immense achievements that are often forgotten e.g. 10 million households electrified since 1994 and the millions with never before, access to running water. In the same breath, he talks of the continued gross inequality and widening socioeconomic divide. He urges us to surge ahead to deliver freedom to those who have as yet not fully experienced it for not to do so lies the peril of our nation.
Mzwandile Manto is a lifelong student of philosophy and an experienced contributor to international public capacity building. He reminds us that freedom is the ability to self-actualize which includes our health and human security. The inability to self-actualize is a failure of political freedom. Our system of so-called proportional representation is representative of the self-limitations we have imposed for freedom to be achieved. He continues that in practice over quarter of a century, these system “representatives” have proven that they are allegiant to their parties not us, the citizens, the electorate who provide them with the mandate to serve. He bluntly states that the majoritianism in place, mocks and bastardises our freedom in the current political system and to be truly free, means to tackle the system first.
The prolific current events commentator @linley_sa prefers to be engaged through this handle on Twitter. He argues that without human dignity, there can be no freedom. Pronouncing political freedom does not equate to releasing the chains of those that remain modern slaves by virtue of hunger, unemployment and squalor. The only release is true socioeconomic freedom.
My work particularly with the homeless and un/under employed has set me on a path to advocate for an active citizenry. As Freedom Day 2020 approaches, with COVID19 showing up the fault lines of our grossly inequitable society, I realize that in our eagerness to give up the ghost of Apartheid, we gave too much power to the ANC-led government, a movement I generally support. The power corrupted many of them and in turn our people suffered a new oppression – knowing they had rights but being unable to access them. If COVID19 teaches us anything, let it be that from this, our Freedom Month, we cannot continue business as usual.
We need to change trajectory, check our ideology and privilege at the door, pragmatically evaluate the last two decades and usher in a new system of governance. I say governance because the time of government being our leaders must be over. We the citizens must take our power back, elect representatives, hold them directly accountable and release them from duty if they do not perform. A new social compact is required, one where equality of opportunity and access to services are not rights in a story told to us in 1999 but a lived reality for all. For me, the answer is that we have political freedom but it is a fallacy as it is limited to a class that simply isn’t reflective of how the majority of South Africans live. My question to you, is simply this, freedom or fallacy: where are we 26 years later?