Our freedom in chains

2013-09-08 14:00

Is South Africa living up to the ideals for which Steve Biko died? Helen Zille doesn’t think so

On Thursday, I visited the holding cell at Walmer Police Station where the police beat Steve Biko into a state of semiconsciousness nearly 36 years ago on September 12 1977.

I would encourage everyone to visit the cell. Take yourself back to the not-too-distant past when opposition political leaders routinely died in custody. Put your hands on the metal grille where Biko was chained for hours while his life drained away.

Try to imagine the callous indifference of his doctors and handlers.

Try to imagine yourself in that situation – without the right to see a lawyer, without the right to appear in a court, without the right to see family – completely at the mercy of your captors who only come to torture you. And where doctors are complicit, trying to cover up your fatal injuries.

We find it difficult even to imagine today, because we have become accustomed to the rights of a constitutional democracy.

But we must never forget how much brave people like Biko sacrificed to get us here and we must always remember that the price of freedom is constant vigilance.

There are parallels that can be drawn between South Africa in September 1977 and South Africa now. If we are to honour Biko’s legacy, we must ask difficult questions that may make others and ourselves uncomfortable.

Having lived through that time to now, there is one striking similarity between Biko’s South Africa of 1977 and our South Africa of today: a widespread sense of powerlessness that justice is not being secured for all.

This feeling of powerlessness can be seen in three ways: our judicial institutions are being weakened by those with political power, individuals feel unable to use their freedom because they lack opportunities and leaders feel free to ignore the wishes of the people who elected them to office. All three strands are connected.

And the perceived and real powerlessness of millions of South Africans threatens the country’s success on the eve of the first born-free election next year.

This premise has an academic basis. Drawing directly from Biko’s teachings, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen made the case that “powerlessness” in actual lives is the hurdle that a democracy must clear.

The state must ensure that individual freedoms not only exist, but that everyone has the ability to exercise them.

In South Africa, everyone has freedoms that are spelt out in the Constitution, one I believe to be the greatest in the world. But its greatness does not mean that everyone can experience its freedoms.

This leads some who are hungry or without a home to ask what the point of the Constitution is. You cannot, after all, eat or find shelter under the Constitution.

In 1977, South Africa did not have a Constitution, but it had Biko. It was not coincidental that he died one year after the Soweto uprising.

He was perhaps the most powerful voice of the powerless at that time. Illegitimate governments at risk of being overturned clamp down on human rights. They do that to buy time for themselves.

The powerless are always the first to forfeit their human rights. The apartheid regime saw the writing on the wall in 1976.

Biko’s murder in detention was as much a reaction to the uprising as it was an abhorrent intervention to strangle the fight against apartheid.

His death may have bought the apartheid government an extra five or 10 years of life.

Keep this notion of reaction in mind and go back with me to August 16 2012 – the day 34 mine workers were gunned down by the police at Lonmin’s Marikana mine.

These pictures reminded many people of my generation of Soweto, Sharpeville and Boipatong.

But the big difference, of course, is that today we are a constitutional democracy, guided not by secrecy and terror, but by the rule of law.

The Marikana Commission of Inquiry only began its work months after the shootings, but we know enough already to see that the conflict was ignited by the disconnect between the Constitution’s freedoms and the exclusion of so many workers from the bargaining processes that could change their lives.

They had been excluded by a dominant union and big business under a law passed by a big government to exclude the less powerful from participation in negotiations until they turned to violent protest.

You may not feel powerless or vulnerable, but let me ask you a question: do you believe that you could die in police detention in South Africa in 2013?

Your answer would probably be no. So would mine.

But the 932 people who died in police detention between 2011 and 2012 probably did not believe they would either.

The violence of Marikana and of the death in police detention of nearly 1 000 people in a year is symptomatic of how our Constitution and judicial institutions are being hollowed out, bit by bit.

This trend will accelerate as the ANC government will try to extend its life.

The danger is that the incursions into our rights and liberties are becoming so frequent and deep, we may be becoming collectively anaesthetised.

Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote: “There are no conditions of life to which a man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him.”

Let’s look at some of the other incursions into our Constitution and judicial institutions.

There is the refusal of the National Prosecuting Authority to hand over to the DA the reduced record of the decision to drop more than 700 charges of fraud and corruption against President Jacob Zuma.

Then there was the ANC’s attempt to pass a draconian secrecy bill, which, if it had been enacted in its original form, would mean a journalist could be arrested for exposing the circumstances of the murder of a Biko-like figure today.

The revelations of the corrupt R70 billion arms deal, which directly relate to the charges against Zuma, would have never seen the light of day.

The truth surrounding the upgrade to Zuma’s Nkandla homestead would equally be suppressed.

South Africa is in a state of fragility in 2013. The country stands, as it did in Biko’s day, at a grave crossroads.

Our Constitution and judicial institutions must be protected, and we all have a role to play.

Biko taught that we are not passive bystanders, but authors of our destiny as individuals and as a country.

This self-realisation, or consciousness, also offered the tools to end apartheid and begin building an “open-opportunity society” for all based on a democratic government and the rule of law – a society in which every person has the opportunity and the means to improve his or her circumstances.

As much as people have the right to freedom from forcible infliction of pain by others, they also have the right to access specific freedoms.

I have no doubt Biko today would encourage us all to honour our past by owning our future. We should not be fatalistic, nor should we be complacent.

It has been said that peoples or cultures who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. I don’t believe we are doomed, but our position

is fragile because of the growing sense of powerlessness among all sections of South African society.

Your actions – what you do or fail to do – will determine if we are doomed to repeat the injustices of the past, or if we will turn a new page of hope.

Let us honour Biko by declaring with unshakeable confidence: “Honour your past, own your future.” We do so not only in reverence of the dead, but also for the ideals for and by which they lived.

» Zille is the leader of the DA and Western Cape premier

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