In the words of Paul K Chappell, army captain, peace activist, writer: “When people in a democracy are not educated in the art of living Z to strengthen their conscience, compassion, and ability to question and think critically Z they can be easily manipulated by fear and propaganda. A democracy is only as wise as its citizens, and a democracy of ignorant citizens can be as dangerous as dictatorship.”
Twenty-five years of a constitutional democracy is a major milestone for all South Africans, especially those who experienced gross human rights violations, such as killings, disappearances, torture, imprisonment and being forced into exile, for confronting the apartheid regime.
Fortunately or unfortunately for South Africa, we will be evaluating progress made over the past 25 years during national elections, when the society often manifests extreme polarisation in terms of progress made and the failures and weaknesses of the governing party. The process, which is about our reflections on the paths taken since 1994, gets politicised and then becomes about “us” and “them”. We all know that extremism and splits rupture the foundations of social cohesion and other democratic norms critical to a nation’s resolve to push the frontiers of inequality, joblessness and poverty. They also affect investment in the youth and their ability to appreciate their heritage, quality education and innovation.
Yesterday, government gave details of progress made in the last 25 years. It also said that, between now and 2044 when the country celebrates 50 years of democracy, we need to mobilise professionals to set parameters of engagement, not only as part of electioneering but as nuanced perspectives on how to avoid costly detours and pursue our objective of creating a non-sexist, non-racist, equal society for all who live in it and the South Africa envisaged in the Constitution.
There is another assault on our democratic values that is currently dominating the national psyche as the worst form of betrayal by those who yield power. This concerns government representatives who are in collusion with certain business people. What gives one hope is that government has made a choice and has appointed independent judges to investigate malpractices, corruption and all other syndicates that have caused the collapse of most of our state-owned enterprises.
The public rage is unprecedented, though understandable, but it will be disingenuous for South Africans not to celebrate the freedoms citizens enjoy today, particularly after so many died for criticising the oppressive and repressive government for denying the majority of the citizens these same freedoms.
Over the past 25 years, government and NGOs have defended institutions established under chapter 9 of the Constitution, the independence of the media and the judiciary. We need to ensure that chapter 9 institutions are adequately funded and that access to justice by ordinary citizens is entrenched. Admittedly, statistics of rapes, murders, gender-based violence and child disappearances have demonstrated the ugly face of patriarchy.
The response of President Cyril Ramaphosa to women activists’ calls for political intervention has given women hope. Perpetrators of these crimes should be held accountable, patriarchy has to be deconstructed and gender equality instilled through all segments of society. The resilience of survivors is remarkable; it clearly shows that the war against such victimisation is winnable.
The mind-set of officials within the criminal justice system has also been severely criticised by women’s groups due to perceptions that its officials are not sensitive and fail to appreciate the pain, humiliation and suffering associated with reactions to sexual assaults and murders of women.
It is therefore urgent to prioritise training and educate officials on the crippling effects of trauma and post-traumatic stress reactions and their subsequent disorders.
Women are demanding that the police stations and the courts should consider survivors who have to relive their ordeals and provide more innovative procedures to ensure that they feel safe during this time.
Mkhize is national convener of the Progressive Women’s Movement of South Africa