On April 27 1994 the people of this country stood in long queues for many hours, waiting to cast their vote for the first time. In some parts of the country the weather was hostile, freezing cold, while in other parts it was scorching hot.
Our people were voting for the first time, voting for an end to racism and for democracy and a better life — for jobs, free education and decent housing. Over and above their vote for their material needs to be met, they were voting for their freedom. Or so they were made to believe.
The rays of that sunrise were breaking through the dark storm clouds. The first beams of the new sun were making their way through the clouds into the new blue sky. After centuries of oppression, hope was rekindled; a new nation, a rainbow nation, was born. Or so we were made to believe.
I remember watching the proceedings on television. I saw Archbishop Desmond Tutu casting his vote. The great man jumped for joy and said: “Free at last! Free at last!” Freedom is the ability of the people not to be oppressed and to be able to determine their own future collectively and by their own wills. Freedom is the realisation of the will of the people. When there is freedom, the government is for the people and by the people, because the people govern themselves. Freedom is the ability of the people to determine their own destiny. Freedom is self-government.
When there is freedom the people do not have to beg the government to recognise them as important. When there is freedom, people are free from hunger, poverty, disease, homelessness and the inability to meet basic needs. Justice, peace, dignity and access to the country’s wealth are central to freedom.
Freedom means that people must come first. It means people before profit. It means people before the big transnational corporations. It means that the people’s sovereignty and rights have been restored.
Freedom does not mean that the people vote for a few politicians to take their friends and relatives and join the old white capitalists as they feast off the devastation of the people behind high walls. Freedom does not mean police officers who shoot and kill us. Freedom does not mean that our so-called leaders become managers of capital, running the country and disciplining the people on behalf of capital.
Freedom does not mean that politicians become little gods. Freedom is not the rule of experts in civil society. Freedom is not the rule of the police. In a free country it is the voice of the citizens that matters the most. If South Africa were free, the voice of every South African and of every community would matter equally. Until everyone’s voice counts equally, we cannot say that we are free.
Against the nightmare
After 17 years of democracy, our townships are broken. All you see are drunk men and women walking aimlessly like zombies, their bloodstreams flowing with cheap alcohol. This is how we drug ourselves against the nightmare of a democracy that is really neo-apartheid and not post-apartheid. This is how we drug ourselves against a society that has no respect for us, no place for us and no future for us.
In the Eastern Cape they drink umtshovalale. In KwaZulu-Natal they drink isiqatha. In Gauteng they drink gavani. In the Western Cape they drink spirits. This alcohol has a hazardous effect. My people, young and old, have been silently taken to their graves because of the effects of alcohol. We are poisoning ourselves to drug ourselves against the horror of our lives. Throughout South Africa, young people smoke antiretroviral drugs. It is a well-known thing. We live below the poverty line and we have completely lost hope.
South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. The gap between the rich and the poor is vast — and it is growing. The unemployment rate is high, above 40%. Poverty rates are skyrocketing. In a place such as Alice in the Eastern Cape, residents drink unsafe water. At times there is no water at all. In Grahamstown we continue to use the bucket system to shit.
All around South Africa there are crumbling RDP houses and municipalities are falling under the strain of corruption, while Jacob Zuma’s family — his wives, children and relatives — are becoming billionaires. Sicelo Shiceka spent R640 000 in one year on rooms for himself and his staff at the One&Only hotel in Cape Town, flew to Switzerland first-class to visit an ex-girlfriend in jail and hired a limousine to drive him to the prison.
What kind of politician lives like this while the people are suffering as we are? What kind of politician lives like this while South Africa has become “the protest capital of the world”, with one of the highest rates of public protest in the world?
Shiceka is a predator and not a liberator. He is not the only one. In 2010 Eskom announced its decision to increase electricity tariffs by 35%, assaulting the unemployed and the poor while the ANC company, Chancellor House, rips the profit from the shaking hands of the people. Very soon the coffers of this country will run dry and we will be asked to give even more to the ANC, to Chancellor House and the Zuma family. The way they are looting our resources is beyond imagination. The way that they have privatised the struggle of the people is incredible.
We are a bleeding nation. All the power that belongs to us has been centralised in the control of the ruling elite. We are not consulted on the model of the RDP house that must be built. They decide for us. The Integrated Development Plan (IDP) meetings are a platform to manage us. There is no veracity. They choose those who must represent us in local chambers and then parade them as our leaders. When we ask to speak to these leaders, they call the police. We have no power. We have no voice. We have no freedom to celebrate. We live in a radically unjust society. We are oppressed.
The ANC tries to control the people with its police, social grants and rallies with celebrities and musicians. The ANC tries to drug us against their betrayal by keeping us drunk on memories of the struggle — the same struggle that they have betrayed. But everywhere the ANC is losing control. Protest is spreading everywhere. Everywhere people are boycotting elections and running independent candidates. Everywhere people are organising themselves into their own autonomous groups and movements.
As Mostafa Omara wrote about the Egyptian revolution: “People in Egypt will tell you: ‘Gone are the days when we felt helpless and little; gone are the days when the police could humiliate us and torture us; gone are the times when the rich and the businessmen thought they could run the country as if it were their own private company.'”
In South Africa we long for the same feeling. But revolutions do not spring from nothing. Revolutions come through the united action of men and women, rural and urban — action that springs from their needs. Revolutions happen when ordinary men and women begin to take action to seize control of their own lives.
The rebellion of the poor in this country is growing. More and more organisations are emerging. More and more people have become radicalised. More and more communities have lost their illusions after experiencing the violence of the predator state. More and more people are starting and joining discussions about the way forward for the struggle to take the country back.
We need to move forward with more determination, working all the time to build and to unite our struggles. As we connect our struggles, from Ficksburg to Grahamstown, from Cape Town to Johannesburg and Durban, we are, slowly but steadily, building a new mass movement. We are building a network of struggles in living solidarity with one another.
Ayanda Kota is the chair of the Unemployed People’s Movement in Grahamstown