Freedom at last

2010-04-27 00:00

TODAY South Africa will celebrate 16 years of freedom from state-sponsored violence, poverty and oppression.

It was a triumph over marginalisation, division and misery for the majority of South Africans. This day gave many of these people the hope of a new beginning and a political framework that would allow them to express their humanity and to define their own destinies.

This was no small victory for us to commemorate today, in spite of the ubiquity of poverty, corruption, racism and disgruntlement. I say in spite of these problems because it is very easy to let these serious challenges obscure the significance of freedom and democracy.

The imprints of apartheid and colonialism have not completely disappeared — from a political geography that privileges areas around former colonial towns over former native reserves and townships, to unequal education.

The social stratification that divided South Africans into racially determined status groups remains intact. Of course, a small black middle class has joined the privileged few. They are mostly consumers of material produced by others. A small portion of them own some means of production, but the most prominent owe their prosperity to access to preferential procurement opportunities in the government and business.

Apartheid is not too distant a past for us not to remember what freedom means.

The recent flare up of racial debates over the killing of white farmers as well as the plight of black farm labourers who in some cases work and live in semi-slavery conditions is a reminder that the past is in many ways part of the present.

The public anger that is bubbling under service- delivery protests, so-called xenophobic attacks, and the rage against affirmative action are all, in part, attempts by citizens to come to terms with the post- apartheid trauma.

Of course, it is hard to see the big picture in the midst of socioeconomic difficulties. The idea of freedom may be rather abstract for millions of citizens who are languishing in poverty, are troubled by disease and are without proper shelter, and even for those who see redress as reverse victimisation. Many poor whites feel that they are being excluded, no matter whether that is factually correct or not.

It is very easy for us who are paid to think to get carried away by Amartya Sen’s persuasive argument that development is actually freedom. It is less about material possessions than about values and principles. Sen contends that development comes about through extension of rights and freedoms.

It is a sophisticated statement of truth, but we sometimes use it to create an artificial dichotomy between material and nonmaterial dimensions of development. Sen does not suggest that all that the poor need are the voice and choice. He actually contends that development and freedom are mutually reinforcing. He argues for what you would call development in the “right” way: one built on affirmation of human rights.

In this view, the relatively improved living conditions of township dwellers and communities under special authorities under apartheid did not constitute development because black people lacked voice and choice.

In this sense, efforts by the apartheid state to create material conditions in Bantustans to make them attractive to black people were futile in the absence of a democratic political environment.

Therefore, the achievement of freedom was a necessary condition for translating material conditions into development. So, without a democracy and civic rights, it would be wrong to talk about development in this country.

Oppression and minority rule did not enable the government to promote equitable development. It actually promoted conditions where the majority of whites lived in conditions comparable with those in emerging markets, while the black majority lived and still experience conditions found in poor countries.

Today we celebrate the fact that the objective political conditions have changed significantly. The Constitution defines a political environment that enables every South African to determine the course of their lives freely and enjoins the government and society to help empower citizens to live a better life.

Whatever the weaknesses in our democracy, it is a growing democracy.

Whatever challenges we experience under democracy, it is still a democracy in the making.

Whatever our misgivings about the state of our democracy, we are a free people.

We all ought to remember the price many paid for us to enjoy our freedom.

We have to find ways to celebrate privately or in public events. It is a problem that the white communities and black middle-class groups do not make their celebrations public.

If the idea of rallies is too close to poverty-stricken mobs, the middle class can organise special feasts and hold moments of silence to honour sacrifices made for our freedom. There is no shortage of ideas, but there is a lack of will and foresight.

We have to celebrate and honour our freedom.

It is the right thing to do.

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