“I was on a toilet with Archbishop Tutu.” That was my response to the question from an American visitor, who had asked: “Where were you on that day?”
I hastened to clarify; I did not want to create the wrong impression about the Arch.
We were trying to address a large crowd at the annual protest march to the opening of Parliament. We were standing on a public toilet in Greenmarket Square in Cape Town.
Of course, the gathering was illegal under apartheid on a number of counts. I was wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed “ANC Lives! ANC Leads” (also illegal on a number of counts).
We were expecting the inevitable: it would be a matter of minutes before the police would fire teargas, baton charge and arrest everyone they could lay their hands – and wield their batons – on. We were receiving reports of assaults at police roadblocks, on trains, buses and taxis to prevent marchers from getting to town. Despite this, a good few thousand of us managed to make our way there.
A journalist managed to “break out” of the lockdown in Parliament to inform us of the unbannings. It took a long time for us to believe him, especially because of the police brutality at the same time as the speech in Parliament. It was inconceivable.
Life without the bannings of everything and anything? Never! Freedom in our lifetime? Don’t be ridiculous… We then toyi-toyied all the way to Gugulethu, and our first new experience of how things had changed was when comrades who were not from Gugs were the ones who had to find a lift.
We spent the next few days not sleeping but toyi-toying and driving in motorcades, waving the flags of the ANC and the South African Communist Party. I had to be sat down and instructed to go and sleep.
I never thought I would live to see democracy. I had concluded that my life would end in one of three ways, as it had for many: prison, exile or death. And, like many before me, I did not fear these prospects. Indeed, the formidable apartheid machine lost its power when youths, women and men were no longer afraid to stand up, even if it meant death. And that is why I challenge anyone to convince me that life now is worse than under apartheid.
We have a Constitution and institutions of democracy that are the best in the world. We have a populace who have opinions and are still prepared to make those heard. We know how to make ourselves ungovernable.
My comrades in government are not happy with me for saying this. I say, thank God for it, because we are not yet fully free. But we could not have started this journey without democracy. The challenge is whether we will keep walking and how much we will stray from the course.
Sometimes I am ecstatic and proud. At other times, angry, fearful or despondent. But I am ever mindful that our generation will shape the quality of our freedom and history will judge us. The enormity and the complexity of the task of building freedom is overwhelming at times – definitely not for the faint-hearted.
But we are lucky. Seldom in history has one generation had the opportunity to live through horror, carry the badge of honour for defeating the beast, and given the opportunity build a different future.
We who fought and won must honour the legacy of those who paid the ultimate price. We must also honour our own legacies; not trample on them. We underestimate how brutalised we are as a nation. The scars left by legalised and institutionalised bigotry and exploitation daunt me.
We need to keep faith in our goal of full freedom. We need wisdom. We need courage. We need integrity. And I do expect those of us who fought for freedom to continue to be at the forefront, still, wherever we are – in active politics, business or social movements. I especially expect those who choose to lead us through politics to stay true to our ideals, because politics has to protect the interests of poor and vulnerable people. Middle-class and wealthy people have the means to access the wonderful rights and institutions of our democracy.
We as a nation, and especially our politicians, should recognise the huge capability of our people and their organisations. The government and we citizens have an exaggerated view of the importance of government. We need a notion of “governance”, where the government is a crucial player, but not the only one.
As citizens we should use what exists better – the parliamentary processes, the courts and our Constitution. We should be active, whether in political parties, nongovernmental organisations or social movements. We should contribute time and resources to ensure a healthy civil society that can partner or challenge the government.
Globally, we witness the consequences of marginalistion that poverty and inequality creates, particularly among the youth. It hasn’t happened here – not yet. It shouldn’t happen here. We are a middle-income country with vast resources. We could provide freedom from hunger and disease.
But we have to choose to do so. Our leaders in politics and business should lead from the front and demonstrate a determination to close the gaps and to show integrity. They should not steal or arrogate special rights to themselves.
When we stood as leaders in Greenmarket Square 25 years ago, we did not believe we were entitled to more. We did not lie or obfuscate. We sought to include and inspire. And we gained the respect of the world. Which is why my American friend asked me that question.
He actually wanted to tell me where he was on that day – he had managed to get into Parliament. He was inspired by our struggle. I hope he still feels that way about our country. I struggle sometimes, but I still believe we can do it. If we don’t, we will get the future we deserve.
Cheryl Carolus is executive chairperson of Peotona Group Holdings, a former United Democratic Front activist and the ANC deputy secretary general from 1994 to 1997