Freedom Day 2016: SA still fraught and divided

10 April 1993: all South Africans know where they were when the news broke of Chris Hani’s assassination, just like 27 April 1994 – the day of the first democratic election – will forever be etched upon the nation’s memory.

Recently, the wound of the former was reopened as Hani’s murderer, Janusz Walus, made another legal bid for parole.

This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and of the adoption of the final Constitution. Yet today South Africa seems to be a country fractured and unable to reconcile.

A younger generation blames Mandela for ‘selling us out’ – and the Constitution has become the scapegoat for all that is wrong in society. That argument often ignores the complexities and historical context of the time; as well as the role those in power play (or fail to play) in implementing the Constitutional promise.

Looking back on the imperfections of South Africa’s transition, the only thing that can be said with certainty is that transitions are imperfect and difficult. Yet this week, as the country celebrates 22 years of freedom, South Africans seem slightly less optimistic and enthusiastic; trusting their leaders far less than in those halcyon days, and at times seeming rudderless.

Deepening levels of inequality have exacerbated race and class divisions. Just this week, Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) released a damning report on the status of youth in the country. It examined issues of crime, employment and health, among other things, for the period 2009 to 2014.

Already the International Labour Organisation has found that South Africa has a youth unemployment rate of 52%: far higher than those of neighbouring countries. StatsSA found that in the 25- to 34-year-old age group, only one in three South Africans had a job. Much of this has to do with the failure of the post-apartheid education system. And so, the status quo is a rather bleak one.

Is it any wonder that dialogue is brittle and that blame is apportioned readily and angrily? When there is disagreement, South Africans appear to not be listening but instead turn up the volume and out-shout the other. Is apartheid to blame for the country’s current ills,  or the corruption prevalent across so much of the government? Perhaps it is all the fault of the liberal media? And so it goes on.

There seems to be no space for middle ground, or for one finding the other; only the anger of exclusion and unfulfilled promises. The reality is a nearly 25% unemployment rate and unsustainable levels of inequality.

As a country, South Africa clearly underestimated the apartheid legacy and the ability to create a ‘developmental state’; too little emphasis was placed on mobilising citizens’ energies for change and short-termism by the government compromised sustained transformation of society. There was an assumption that elected officials and public servants would be incorruptible,  while the unintended consequences of policy choices were not adequately recognised and  consensus was often ‘imposed’.

As the National Development Plan (NDP) also contends, without a new development trajectory, South Africans will remain unequal, poor and lacking  the cohesion necessary to live together peacefully. For the nation remains stymied by difference. And violence, whether by state repression at Marikana, xenophobic attacks or from one citizen to the other (on university campuses or elsewhere) becomes a means of problem-solving. Of course,  government  has yet to provide more than lip service to the NDP itself.

Yet as we see time and time again, there is something at the heart of society; a resilience that has seen the nation create the impossible despite these differences.

In this country of great complexity and contradiction, freedom is linked not only to economic emancipation and opportunity – but also a sense of understanding and relating to ‘the other’ across the ingrained fault lines of race and class.

The meaning of 27 April 1994 was about creating something new, grasping the urgency of a new development trajectory and reaching across divides. That is the triple challenge of Freedom Day this year.

*This article appeared in EyeWitness News and can be read on their website by clicking here. 

Judith February is a consultant on governance matters and affiliated to the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice.  Prior to that she was Executive Director of the HSRC’s Democracy and Governance Unit and also Head of the Idasa’s South African Governance programme.  Judith has worked extensively on issues of good governance, transparency and accountability within the South African context.  She is a regular commentator in the media on politics in SA and in 2009 served on an ad hoc panel to evaluate the effectiveness of South Africa’s Parliament. She is a regular columnist for Media24 and also an occasional columnist for the Daily Maverick and other publications.  She is the co-editor of “Testing democracy: which way is South Africa going?” March 2010, Idasa. She was awarded a summer fellowship in 2009 at the Freeman Spogli Institute for Democracy Development and the rule of law at Stanford University, California and in 2012 was awarded a Spring Reagan-Fascell Fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC.

To see Judith February's extensive list of publications on our website please click here.

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