Honour heroes, live in the now

2012-09-08 08:47

Liberation leaders need to be lauded, but it is more important now for citizens to be empowered by their constitutional rights, writes Sandile Memela

We are, again, “celebrating the heroes and heroines of the liberation struggle in South Africa”. This is the theme for Heritage Month.

Over the last 18 years, too much attention has been paid to former liberation-struggle stalwarts.

This has been a great mistake. Now that their role is fulfilled, it is time for former liberation-struggle stalwarts to retire from the centre stage. There has been too much navel-gazing.

We now have a democratic government. Simply put, the role of former liberation stalwarts was not only to establish a democratic government but to create an enabling environment for all people to enjoy freedom.

Their historic mission was to create a society that would give employment, education, healthy lifestyles, safety and comfort, skills development, and opportunities for people to fulfil their individual potential.

Much as this is a great achievement, what is lacking is information and education that will teach people how to claim their human rights as defined and protected by the Constitution.

It is only when people truly understand their human rights, as provided by a democratic state, that a freedom struggle can be considered successful.

The overthrow of apartheid was a levelling of the field. It was meant to break exploitation, oppression and cowering before the brutal forces of economic domination.

This dream has not been fulfilled, despite the rise of the black bourgeoisie that comprises largely former liberation struggle heroes, their families and business colleagues.

Former freedom fighters are now part of this bourgeoisie who enjoy well-paid jobs in government, in state-owned entities and are given lucrative BEE deals.

But the fattening of the so-called black middle class with former struggle heroes does not mean everyone is free or enjoys the benefits of living in a democratic state.

In fact, a society that cannot support the starving masses cannot guarantee the safety of its few fat cats. As former struggle artist Jonas Gwangwa sings, freedom for some is freedom for none.

To realise the vision of a caring and proud society, we have to create a new cultural and lifestyle context where the focus is on the heirs of the freedom struggle, especially in the here and now.

We can begin to do this by ensuring that ordinary citizens are educated about their individual rights and begin to internalise the principles, ideals and values enshrined in the Constitution.

Rather than heap praise on aging and increasingly irrelevant former liberation-struggle heroes, it is time we channel our
energies, time and resources to information workshops and educational programmes that teach the citizens of our country about their human rights or what freedom means.

Many former liberation heroes have been assimilated into the unjust economic status quo that they fought against.

In fact, they have become gatekeepers and guardians of the economic inequality and social injustice that is a threat to social cohesion.

This is totally unacceptable in a democratic environment where the majority continue to be assaulted, exploited and oppressed. This is evident in the Marikana tragedy.

When the anger of ordinary folks explodes into violence and death, this means the contribution and value of former struggle heroes is questioned.

The cry is to explain what freedom means when there has been no radical transformation of the economic status of workers in places like mines, for instance.

The ways in which many people who fought for freedom now act in complicity with the existing unjust economic structures
and status quo has been brought to the fore.

There are far too few former freedom fighters responding to these crises to demand not only the popularisation of the Constitution but also to shift the focus away from themselves to empowering folks with information and knowledge to assert their human rights.

We must promote the Constitution as the premier document that should shape our attitude, behaviour and conduct towards ourselves and others.

Some former freedom fighters, now turned conservative, want to suggest the Constitution is suspect, a potential traitor to
the fruits of the freedom struggle.

They have to say this to protect their narrow material interests and justify being part of a status
quo they once fought against.

To enjoy freedom and democracy, ordinary folk need to transform themselves into an informed and knowledge-based class of people armed with their constitutional rights as active citizens.

To get to that level, not only must they move on from glorifying former freedom-struggle heroes but prioritise gaining the necessary information, knowledge and education to implement the objectives of the liberation struggle, which are economic justice and social equality.

Often, those who should be enjoying freedom resort to violence simply because they do not understand the structures and process that work to their advantage in a constitutional democracy.

In fact, they have allowed themselves to be intimidated and isolated not only by the liberation class that has co-opted others who fought for freedom, but their ignorance makes them use primitive and outdated methods for protest that are a repetition of the mistakes of the past.

The rightful heirs of the struggle need to make its ideals practical. They must undergo an intellectual transformation to
open their minds to what they can get the state and its apparatchiks to do for them through constitutional and legal means.

It is difficult to imagine people will understand and appreciate true freedom if they neither have the information and knowledge of what their rights are.

It is time that freedom became visible. The first step is for people to be informed and educated about not only what freedom means, but their human rights which are enshrined in the Constitution.

Our constitutional democracy is considered one of the best in the world. In fact, it is the bedrock of the people’s power not only to elect their own leaders but to demand that leaders be servants of the people. Leaders are not VVIPs.

For freedom to have practical meaning, it is time we look at those we fought for and not those who fought.

» Memela is chief director for social cohesion in the department of arts and culture. He writes in his personal capacity 

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