April 27 marks the annual celebration of South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994; a significant day in our country’s history. A culmination of years of struggle, the product of a negotiated settlement, an extraordinary moment that marked the end of apartheid and the move towards a brighter future with the establishment of a new democratic dispensation under the leadership of the ANC. The Government of National Unity, committed to a nation-building project which aimed to bring about peace, unity and the restoration of human dignity. It is these historical occurrences that hallmarks Freedom Day celebrations each year.
Now, years later, Freedom Day takes on a very different nuance. Especially in recent years with the growing critique of the different spheres of government and its inability bring about real social and economic transformation. With growing discontent and valid anger, the people of South Africa are rising up and boldly questioning the progress made under the democratic dispensation. It is this kind of active citizenry that finds home in many sectors of society. Black students continue to voice their deep disgruntlement at the severe inequalities as reflected within our education system and the inefficiencies of government to provide for free decolonised education. Workers continue to fight for dignified working conditions and living wages. Gender activists continue to rise up against the growing sexual violence epidemic. Fellow Africans continue to fight for their right to dignity in face of Afrophobic violence in South Africa. It is this continued struggle and strife that begs to interrogate the progress made in the last 23 years.
What is the meaning of freedom when the Marikana Massacre happened under the watchful eye of a democratic government? What is the meaning of freedom when one in three women in South Africa are raped and vulnerable members of society remain subject to street harassment, a product of violent masculinities and a pervasive Rape Culture? What is the meaning of freedom when the dream of going to university is just that – a dream – for the black child? What is the meaning of freedom when inequality, poverty and unemployment remain the order of the day for most South Africans?
It is no secret that South African society reflects that of inequality – all along the lines of race and gender (to name but a few). The country of the haves and the have nots – all living side by side as supposed “equals” before a system of governance that sees us all as “equals”. A cynic would say that this is the greatest fallacy of our time; but so would an economist, especially with an estimated 7-million (probably more) South Africans living in extreme poverty. And when these statistics are broken down and understood along the lines of race and gender, the idea that we have yet to address the legacies of apartheid and colonialism is indisputable. It is the persistence of these violent and perpetual systems of privilege and poverty that the hopes of true freedom remain distant.
True freedom comes the day we are emancipated from a system that only serves to benefit a few; the day freedom is not only ensured to those who can afford it and those who inherited it. And surely true freedom cannot simply be measured up against a vote – because what does freedom mean when you do not have food on the table? When your children go to bed without a meal? Because at the end of the day, what’s a freedom? Can you eat it?
- This article was written by Jodi Williams and Gugu Nonjinge. This article first appeared on the Daily Maverick.
Photo courtesy: South African Tourism