South Africa is at a crossroads as the nation prepares for the elections on May 8. The elections find the nation, firstly, sandwiched between sluggish economic growth and energy security challenges that continue to pose a threat to our young, maturing democracy.
Secondly, the country has turned into a “commissions republic”, with the government making significant efforts to address the pervasive scourge of corruption and maladministration in the public and private sectors.
Thirdly, the nation is tucked between public protests, largely about poor basic service provision, and information about corruption that is emerging from publications such as Gangster State by Pieter-Louis Myburgh. Even though the authenticity of information published in the book is yet untested, it nevertheless inflicts a measure of harm on the ruling party.
Corruption and service delivery failures mock Freedom Day, a significant day in our country’s history. They mock the meaning of freedom and the many years of struggle that ended the apartheid era. They mock the ultimate sacrifices made by our forefathers and mothers, who laid down their lives so that we could have a brighter future and enjoy the fruits of a new democratic dispensation. They mock our nation-building project, as articulated in the national development plan, a vision aimed at bringing prosperity to the country as well as the restoration of human dignity after decades of underdevelopment and exclusion.
Given the scale of challenges facing the country and the polarisation across racial, class and gender divides, the meaning of Freedom Day is eclipsed as the different realms of government struggle to deliver on their social contract with citizens.
The growing discontent among citizens is valid as the majority question the possibility of living the dream — a better life for all — again.
Interestingly, there is an awakened sense of active citizenship across the nation, as various sectors are starting to take their civic responsibility to hold government accountable seriously; demanding pragmatic responses from the various spheres of governance about their situations.
Workers are demanding better salaries and students are demanding free education. Activists are calling on government to respond decisively against all forms of prejudice and injustice that continue to mock our human dignity. Women and children are crying for safety and the protection of their lives in a highly violent culture. The struggle, indeed, continues.
So where to from here? To make sense of Freedom Day and its meaning, the above issues must be addressed conclusively. They require a concerted effort from all sectors of society, including ordinary citizens. Everyone has a role to play in building this nation. It is incumbent upon us as a nation to continue advocating for better public services provision and good governance at the very least.
Practically, true freedom means that every citizen must decide not to be passive any longer. If the state of the nation irks you, ask yourself: What must I do to make my environment better?
The nation must be delivered from its captors and every citizen has a role to play. Every voter must vote. Our power to influence the direction of the nation lies in our vote. It is imperative that every registered voter exercise their civic responsibility to ensure the nation returns to responsible governance and leadership.
We must learn to practise tolerance. We are not free as a nation if we cannot coexist peacefully with each other regardless of our racial, gender, class and economic backgrounds. Our hard-won freedom was founded on the principles of reconciliation. It is undemocratic to re-open racial and ethnic wounds. Racism and all forms of injustice can be overcome — it is in our hands as citizens.
Media freedom must be protected at all costs. This constitutionally guaranteed right to expression is a key tenet of a thriving democracy. Yet reporting must be done responsibly, without threatening citizens’ lives and livelihoods, in the face of the increasing incidence of fake news and propaganda. Citizens’ trust in the media wanes very rapidly when commentary is harmful and untrue. The loss of trust in reporting might do more harm than decades of repressive apartheid.
Every effort must be made to address the universal problems of poverty, inequality and unemployment. The nation isn’t free until these three enemies of a democracy are eliminated in our society.
True freedom means expanding opportunities to deserving students who were previously excluded from accessing higher education.
Overall, the dream of a better future for all is not lost. As a nation, we must live in hope and overcome every form of cynicism about democracy. We are a resilient nation that has overcome many atrocities and injustices in the past. We must guard our hard-won freedom by upholding the rule of law and resist every temptation to regress to the hopeless political dungeon of the apartheid era.
Dr Paul Kariuki is the executive director of the Democracy Development Programme. These are his own views