President Cyril Ramaphosa said Freedom Day was the most momentous and significant day in the history of South Africa.
The president led national Freedom Day celebrations today by delivering the keynote address at a commemoration event in Makhanda, formerly Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape.
“We are gathered here to celebrate the day we won our freedom,” he said.
Today marked 25 years of democracy, following decades of apartheid rule and segregation in which the majority of the country’s citizens were marginalised.
Ramaphosa began his address by asking the crowd who had gathered at Miki Yili Stadium to rise and observe a minute’s silence in honour of those who perished in this week’s floods that lashed Port St Johns in the Eastern Cape and areas around Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, and of those killed in the recent cyclone that hit South Africa’s neighbouring countries.
“As we celebrate our freedom, I would like us to remember those who have died in the recent floods here in the Eastern Cape as well as in KwaZulu-Natal. Our thoughts are also with those who have perished in our sister countries in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe,” said Ramaphosa.
He said this year’s Freedom Day celebrations were about recalling the battles that were fought, the setbacks as well as the great victories achieved along the march to freedom and democracy.
“It was here [Makhanda] on this soil that the so-called Frontier Wars with European settlers were fought in the 19th century by our people, who were determined to remain independent and free in the land of their forebears.
“It was here, 200 years ago, that the mighty rebellion against the greatest occupation took place – here, in the battle of Grahamstown,” said Ramaphosa.
He paid tribute to Makhanda ka Nxele, the warrior who led the attack on the British in the battle of Grahamstown.
He also used the event to pay tribute to some of the country’s most decorated struggle icons.
“We have inherited this freedom from the hero, Mangaliso Sobukwe, a son of this province who founded the Pan Africanist Congress to push for self-determination for the country’s majority based on the principle of African nationalism.
“We have also inherited this freedom that we are celebrating today from our Sarah Baartman, who is buried not far from here ... We have also inherited this freedom from the hero Steve Biko, a young activist from King William’s Town whose ideas of black consciousness continue to influence generations long after his passing,” he said.
Ramaphosa paid homage to many other South African icons such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Chris Hani, Charlotte Maxeke and the founding president of South Africa’s democracy, Nelson Mandela.
“It is their legacy that inspired many of our people to continue the struggle to attain the freedom that we are celebrating today,” he said.
He said that, as the country celebrated what he called a great human achievement, it must reflect on how far it had travelled.
“We must reflect on the progress we have made in setting right the wrongs of the past; in bringing development in the communities across our country where there was once neglect; in restoring human dignity where there was only contempt towards our people,” he said.
The proceedings in Makhanda started with the ceremonial guard of honour and an air display by members of the SA National Defence Force.
Ramaphosa said those who went out to vote on election day, May 8, held the destination of the nation for the next 25 years and so, should vote responsibly.
He said the journey for South Africa would only be completed when every citizen had a better life.
“Ours is still a deeply unequal country. There are great divisions between rich and poor, between urban and rural, men and women, between those who have jobs and those who are unemployed.
“There are still divisions between those who own land and those who have been deprived of it,” he said.
In the past 25 years, considerable improvements had been made in improving the material conditions of citizens, he added, with many things having changed.
But there was still much to be done to improve people’s lives.
“Our work is not yet done. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done. But we are of the firm belief that working together, we can address the challenges that lie ahead,” he said.
Describing the progress that had been made since the dawn of democracy, Ramaphosa said the ANC government had provided housing, water, sanitation and electricity to millions of poor South Africans.
“But we are the first to admit that much more still needs to be done. From the dark days of Bantu education, we have dramatically expanded access to education,” he said.
The event ended up looking like an ANC rally as the two large tents that were rigged for the Freedom Day celebrations were filled to capacity by people wearing ANC regalia.
Ramaphosa’s arrival in Makhanda followed the campaign trail he had embarked on in the Eastern Cape, where he addressed three party rallies – in Butterworth, King William’s Town and East London – on Friday.
With a few days before the crucial May 8 general elections to go, the president continued campaigning in the province, which is seen as an ANC stronghold. Immediately after the Freedom Day celebrations on Saturday, he visited Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, where he addressed a rally in Uitenhage and met with professionals in Coega Village.
Today the president was due to address other ANC rallies in Mthatha and Mqanduli, also in the Eastern Cape.
Those who attended the Freedom Day celebrations were handed a South African flag and food packs comprising bread, chicken and a fruit before the official proceedings began.
Local bands and artists provided entertainment while guests sat waiting for Ramaphosa’s arrival.
As soon as the president made his way into the venue, the crowd broke into his campaign song, “Phakama Ramaphosa, ixesha lisondele” (Rise, Ramaphosa, the time is getting close).
Some of the distinguished guests in attendance included Eastern Cape monarchs such as AmaMpondo King Zanozuko Sigcau, AbaThembu acting king Azenathi Dalindyebo, AmaRharhabe Queen Noloyiso Sandile and Western Thembuland King Siyambonga Matanzima.
Also in attendance were Eastern Cape premier Phumulo Masualle, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa, his provincial counterpart Bulelwa Tunyiswa and Water and Sanitation Minister Gugile Nkwinti, and various deputy ministers and mayors.
Ramaphosa said the country’s Constitution was the main pillar of its democracy.
“It is the safeguard of our independence and the expression of our commitment to human rights. And today, as we celebrate our freedom, we are essentially also celebrating our Constitution – the Constitution that has given us all the rights and freedoms we are enjoying today,” he said.