Cyril Ramaphosa: Freedom is never given, it is won

25 years of democracy in South Africa
25 years of democracy in South Africa

Our Constitution showed us the future. We need to ensure that it lives, writes President Cyril Ramaphosa.

In reflecting on the 25 years since we achieved our freedom, I return to a day that held special significance for me.

It was December 10 1996, the day our new Constitution was signed into law at a ceremony in Sharpeville.

The promulgation of the new Constitution marked the end of two years of protracted negotiations that were exhilarating and immensely difficult in equal measure.

There we were – men and women, politicians, priests, feminists, traditional leaders, trade unionists, communists, Broederbonders, conservatives, die-hards and pragmatists – the people representing the most diverse and divergent interests imaginable, all convened under one roof with a common purpose, to draft a new Constitution that would reflect the aspirations of millions of South Africans.

The final product – One law for one Nation – is the work of South Africans who were determined to prove that we could listen to one another, accommodate one another, let go of preconceptions and prejudice and place the interests of the nation above our own.

Our Constitution resounds with the voices of countless South Africans from all walks of life who had a role in drafting not just a document but a future in which all of us could live.

As the main pillar in the edifice of our democracy, our Constitution commits all of us equally to uphold and defend values that fundamentally separate our democratic dispensation from the illegitimate and oppressive system that it replaced.

Today our journey to a better future is guided by our embrace of human rights, equality before the law, the separation of powers, accountable government and respect for our diversity.

Nelson Mandela and Cyril Ramaphosa at the signing of the Constitution on December 10 1996. Picture: Media24

On Freedom Day this year we mark 25 years since the patient, but triumphant shuffle of millions of first-time voters in long queues from the nightmare of apartheid into a brighter future of a new constitutional order.

The crosses made by the electorate in 1994 took on new meaning two years later when our founding president, Nelson Mandela, affixed his signature to the democratic Constitution.

In the chronicle of achievements we have made as a country since 1994, we can be most proud of our enduring commitment to this constitutional order and to a human rights culture.

Our constitutional order underpins our strong and vibrant civil society, a free press, an independent judiciary, the institutions supporting democracy and an accountable and transparent Parliament.

Our citizens enjoy equal rights before the law and the equal benefits of its protection.

At the same time the persistent challenges we face with overcoming poverty, inequality and underdevelopment give us cause to reflect on what freedom has actually meant for our people in material terms.

It is indisputable that South Africa is a vastly different and far better place than it was before 1994.

As a government of the people mandated in successive elections with delivering a better life for all, our progressive policies and programmes have enabled us to bring millions of people out of poverty, provide basic services, open the doors to basic education and higher learning and, at the most basic level, provide a roof over their heads, and social grant support to the indigent.

The national reconciliation project has been among our greatest achievements, dispelling the anxiety of some who feared that at the dawn of freedom, a country built on racism would descend into resentment and retribution.

Through hard work and inclusive engagement on questions confronting our society we continue to see evidence that social cohesion is improving.

As South Africans, our belief in a common humanity endures – even in the most difficult of times. It inspires us to put aside our differences in pursuit of a common objective.

We have come a long way in building a strong foundation for a cohesive nation and reducing inequality.

We have come a long way, too, in silencing the feelings of pessimism and giving voice to South Africans who are building a new and better democratic society in all walks of life.

But we are still not where we had hoped to be.

Poverty, joblessness and other challenges continue to impact on our society – one that is struggling to come to terms with the social, political and economic consequences of apartheid.

In a saying often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.

In South Africa they are the women who leave their homes and families at daybreak to make the long and costly trip to the cities, where their backs are bent and their spirits crushed by the daily grind of menial work, often under poor conditions and for little pay.

They are the grandmothers who, instead of spending their twilight years at rest, have to raise and support grandchildren with their old-age pensions.

They are the men who toil away day and night in the bowels of the earth in searing heat, facing an ever-present threat of injury or death.

They are the unacceptably high number of men and women in the ranks of the unemployed, who wake up each morning, hoping today will be the day their lives change, but who go to bed disappointed, disaffected and hungry.

It is for these South Africans that we should all work tirelessly – as we did to end apartheid – to make the Constitution a reality in their lives.

As much as true freedom is never given but won, true democracy is tangible only when its shade protects all who live in our country.

The Constitution is the birth certificate of our nation.

For it to endure and for it to be more than just words on paper, we have to give practical expression to its tenets.

This is our greatest test as we celebrate Freedom Day and as our country strides ahead along the road of change and renewal.

Over the centuries many countries have found themselves at a fork in the road; no longer able to rely on past glories to sustain themselves into the future.

South Africa is at such a juncture.

We have embarked on a drive to grow our country’s economy, improve the lives of our people, and revive the hope that defined the early years of our democracy.

For us to succeed, we need a courageous, principled and decisive leadership, an active civil society and a mobilised population.

This Freedom Day we acknowledge how far we have come in setting right the wrongs of the past, in bringing development where there was once only neglect and in restoring human dignity where there was once only tyranny.

Freedom Day is an occasion for us to recommit to the founding values of our Constitution.

We count in our favour democratic institutions that are strong and resilient and that have weathered the storm.

We are fortified by the unity of our people. It is what sustained us in the past and what will anchor our society well into the future.

As we mark the passage of time since our freedom was attained, it is my hope that we will remain united as we seek to overcome our challenges – poverty, inequality, unemployment and corruption.

And that as we address these challenges we do not forget just how far we have come.

Twenty-five years ago we won our freedom. Now, together, we must forge a better, brighter future for all.


The Constitution was signed 23 years ago. Has your life changed in that time? If so, how?

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