OPINION | 27 years into democracy and we are still struggling with poverty and unemployment

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Poverty, inequality and unemployment negatively impact on our hard-won freedoms, writes the author. (Photo: Getty Images)
Poverty, inequality and unemployment negatively impact on our hard-won freedoms, writes the author. (Photo: Getty Images)

According to a Freedom in the World global report, South Africans enjoy more freedom regarding political rights and civil liberties than many others around the world. Chris Jones questions if this is the lived experience of everyone.


Every year on 27 April, we commemorate Freedom Day, which reminds us of the first democratic elections that were held on this day in 1994. It gave birth to our constitutional democracy and restored the dignity of the majority of South Africans who had never voted before. South Africa is the country it is today because of the countless sacrifices many have made.  

The American organisation Freedom House annually publishes its Freedom in the World global report, focusing on "political rights and civil liberties". The 2021 edition covered developments in 195 countries and 15 territories from January 2020 to the end of December 2020.  

Freedom in the World assumes that "freedom for all people is best achieved in liberal democratic societies" and measures the fundamental rights and freedoms as enjoyed by individuals rather than governments or their performances per se.  

The 2021 edition involved more than 125 analysts and almost 40 advisers who used a "broad range of sources including news articles, academic analyses, reports from nongovernmental organisations, individual professional contacts, and on-the-ground research". Their proposed scores are "discussed and defended at a series of review meetings, organised by region, and attended by Freedom House staff and a panel of expert advisers".  

According to this report, South Africans indicated 79% freedom regarding political rights and civil liberties. Despite certain adverse developments during 2020 in our country, we are rated free, and we equal the global freedom score of 79% in these respects.  

Political freedom

The political rights section in this report contains questions on the electoral process, political pluralism and participation, and the functioning of our government. In these regards, we scored 33 out of 40. South Africans, in other words, experience 82.5% freedom as far as political rights are concerned.  

Civil liberties, the other section, has to do with questions on freedom of expression and belief, associational and organisational rights, the rule of law, and personal autonomy and individual rights. In these respects, we scored 46 out of 60. Thus, the degree to which we enjoy freedom regarding civil liberties is 76.7%, leaving us with the mentioned average of 79% for both the assessed categories.  

As South Africans, according to this report, we enjoy more freedom regarding political rights and civil liberties than many others around the world.  

However, when I recently discussed this report with a colleague, she asked me: How free do you think are we really in South Africa? She then made the point that a report such as the one I refer to above is very important, but above and beyond scores, percentages and statistics, we also need to listen to people's stories. 

For example, she continued, we have the right and freedom in our country to protest, but we often protest because we are not free in certain respects. There is an ambiguity in freedom that is not always reflected in numbers and statistics.

READ | Steven Friedman: South Africa remains a nation of insiders and outsiders 27 years after democracy

We know that listening to stories help us to see the different faces of people who are poor and economically not free, to sense something of their humanity in ways that are different from raw numbers and statistics.  

Esteemed South African theologian Dirkie Smit, once wrote in an essay that, "Indeed, one person dying from hunger is a human catastrophe, hundreds of thousands dying that way can easily become a mere statistic".  

Smit then refers to when Mamphela Ramphele and Francis Wilson published the comprehensive report of the Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in Southern Africa, Uprooting poverty: The South African challenge, they deliberately called the first part: "The many faces of poverty."  

In that report they warn us against "the danger of statistics" and refer to a remark by an economist of the World Bank, calling their work "mere anecdotal evidence". Despite this scornful condemnation, Ramphele and Wilson argue that it is crucial to listen to the stories of the suffering poor, often women and children, often from rural areas, to see something of the complex faces of this suffering.  

Statistics fall short of painting whole picture

If one looks at it this way, it is obvious why statistics - although much needed and very important - fall short of painting the whole picture. How do we empirically count, analyse, and describe the lives, the experiences, the relationships, the fears and hopes of people who are poor and economically not free, despite many other political rights and liberties?  

"Could it be true that what we do will depend on what we see, what we see will depend on who we are, and what we fail to see will impact on our integrity itself?" Smit asks in the aforementioned essay.  

Without the act of seeing, of shared experiences, of common discovery and observation, of reflection and discussion, the dictum "if we can measure it, we can manage it" quickly loses its impact. Referring to a speech by former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel when he received the SA Stats Report in September 2000, Smit says this is because moving stories "raise questions regarding definition, regarding perspective, regarding interpretation that statistics alone are not able to answer".   

After more than 25 years of democracy, we're still struggling with the social challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment and their negative impact on our hard-won freedoms. Freedom Day wants us to relate to the many faces of poverty and accompanying unfreedom. It encourages us to recognise, educate, and confess because what is at stake is much more than statistics.  

Hopefully, this will help our people become whole again, even in the most elemental sense, so that they can breathe, flourish, and eagerly keep on moving on the long road to freedom.  

- Dr Chris Jones heads the Unit for Moral Leadership in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University. 

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