Guest Column

The acid test of freedom

2017-05-28 05:58
Public Protector Thuli Madonsela
Picture: Tebogo Letsie

Public Protector Thuli Madonsela Picture: Tebogo Letsie

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Thuli Madonsela

‘Our parents fought for freedom, but all we got was democracy … We don’t want democracy, we want freedom.”

This was a bold statement made by Nomatter Ndebele, one of four erudite and passionate millennials who shared a platform with businessman and leadership advocate Reuel Khoza at a Gordon Institute of Business Science public forum recently.

While other young panellists used different language, sometimes reminiscent of 1976, there was a pervasive sense that they too felt let down, particularly by government and adults. I was left with the distinct impression that young people feel they are being made to bear their burdens alone or are being forced to take on responsibilities that should be borne by the state, business and adults – particularly when it comes to addressing historical socioeconomic disparities in the pursuit of social justice.

I wanted to speak to Ndebele about what she’d said, but I stopped first to congratulate one of the other panellists, my daughter Wenzile. She was surrounded by her posse, many of whom wanted to take selfies and talk to me about their appreciation for the work of the Public Protector team during my tenure at the office.

Wenzile had spoken about the vision and philosophy of the foundation my colleagues and I have established, and several participants at the forum, mostly millennials, wanted to know more about how to get involved. The foundation will focus on a democratic leadership approach that is ethical, purposeful, impactful and committed to service.

It was encouraging to see that what resonated with them was the emphasis on community leaders solving the problems they could before holding government and other decision-making structures that failed to play their part accountable.

True freedom remains elusive

Side conversations that followed about democracy and freedom culminated in a dinner table conversation that morphed into a democracy dialogue with a handful of millennials.

The general view was that true freedom remains elusive for many historically disadvantaged citizens. There was also agreement that many were left behind in respect of being allowed to enjoy basic freedoms, such as having one’s potential freed to compete meaningfully with others in the market. It was argued that many of the rights promised in the Constitution mean little or nothing to hopelessly disadvantaged groups and communities.

Access to quality education, passionately mentioned as an example of elusive freedom by Ndebele and her fellow panellists Lovelyn Nwadeyi, Yusuf Randera Rees and Wenzile, emerged as a common concern in the dialogue. There was also some agreement on Wenzile’s point that children from communities that are trapped in abject poverty and the related dysfunctionality, including drug and alcohol abuse accompanied by systemic violence and fear, faced extreme barriers regarding dreaming expansively enough to realise their full human potential.

Khoza’s point about the absence of a clear and compelling vision that should be inspiring and guiding social transformation actions to leapfrog South Africa into a successful and inclusive society also found resonance.

Equally supported was Ndebele’s point that business was not doing enough. She argued that, after Nenegate, which struck at the heart of the economy, the South African elite expected young and poor people to march with them in protest against executive misconduct, yet they had abandoned young people during the #FeesMustFall struggle.

There was consensus that socioeconomic factors, such as poverty, crime and structural inequality reflected in gross disparities regarding access to quality education, healthcare and economic opportunities, coupled with vulnerability to violent crimes, limit the freedom to meaningfully pursue many human endeavours by affected groups and communities.

A passionate philosophical conversation ensued on the meaning of democracy and freedom, and the relationship between the two. Olivier argued that there is a difference between freedom and democracy, and that there are different views on the meaning of democracy. Mbusowabantu argued that democracy and freedom are not mutually exclusive, and that, when properly understood, democracy incorporates freedom. Khulekile concurred, adding that the reason some are left behind is not because of the failure of democracy, but due to the failure of political leadership and the paradigm that confines the meaning of democracy to people’s participation in periodic elections.

The conversation ended with agreement on the need for a public dialogue on the meaning of democracy and freedom, as well as on the various roles that should be played by individuals, communities, government and business in ensuring that all equally enjoy the fruits of democracy.

Nurturing the youth

After the conversation, I came across a pertinent reference to freedom in former president Nelson Mandela’s inaugural state of the nation address on May 24 1994, tweeted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation on Wednesday. Mandela said:

“The purpose that will drive this government shall be the expansion of the frontiers of human fulfilment, the continuous extension of the frontiers of freedom.

“The acid test of the legitimacy of the programmes we elaborate, the government institutions we create, the legislation we adopt must be whether they serve these objectives.

“Our single most important challenge is therefore to help establish a social order in which the freedom of the individual will truly mean the freedom of the individual.”

Mandela continued: “The youth of our country are the valued possession of the nation. Without them, there can be no future. Their needs are immense and urgent. They are at the centre of our reconstruction and development plan…

“Building on this base, the government and the [National Youth Development Agenda] would then work together to ensure that the nurturing of our youth stands in the centre of our reconstruction and development, without being consigned to a meaningless ghetto of public life.”

It seems to me that Mandela saw the expansion of the frontiers of human fulfilment and freedom as the acid test of government’s fulfilment of its responsibility in our democracy, and justification for being in power. This, in my view, is in line with the Constitution, particularly section 237, which requires constitutional responsibilities to be given priority and to be performed diligently.

I wonder if the acid test of programmes that government has been giving priority to, and the institutions created or dismantled and legislation adopted in the past few years, has been the expansion of the frontiers of human fulfilment and freedom for all. How do we reconcile the anger of millennials such as Ndebele at seeing wasted young talent while a few prosper on the wings of social injustice and, in many cases, corruption, with Mandela’s iconic inaugural state of the nation address and, in a sense, promise to all?

Ndebele may not be the only young person who feels that their parents’ fight for democracy was betrayed by exchanging freedom for democracy. If so, our democracy is in peril unless all groups and communities see meaningful progress in their experiences.

There is a saying that goes: “If they do not eat, we can’t sleep.” From the millennial voices, the message seems to be: “If we cannot sleep, none of you can.” What’s comforting, though, is that young people, particularly millennials, are not only demanding accountability for social justice, they are already acting as midwives for the inclusive South Africa of their dreams by rolling up their own sleeves. They are leading us regarding the urgent need for dialogue on the meaning of democracy and freedom.

Madonsela is a Harvard Advanced Leadership Fellow, former Public Protector, and founder and chief patron of the Thuma Foundation

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Read more on:    thuli madonsela  |  youth  |  democracy
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