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Democracy takes patience and participation from citizens

27 April marks South Africa’s break from its authoritarian apartheid past and its move to democracy and freedom. 

The triumph over its racist past with the country’s first ever “one person, one vote” elections in 1994 was the achievement of many lifetimes of struggle. It was a great victory for all of South Africa and an inspiration for the world. 

But, 27 years down the line, it would appear that there are people in South Africa who are disillusioned with democracy. 

We write today’s article not only as good friends of South Africa, but as two democrats and ambassadors of countries that equally are young democracies that managed to overcome authoritarianism and repression. In fact, all three of us, Portugal, South Africa and Lithuania, achieved freedom in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Democracy brought freedom of expression, the right to complain and protest, protection against arbitrariness and discrimination, the power to challenge abuse and denounce corruption and, last but not least, it brought improved livelihoods for our peoples. 

In the case of Portugal, the old regime was toppled on 25 April 1974 — making April a  month of democracy. It saw Portugal’s colonies achieve independence and relations with these territories reset to one of brotherly nations, sharing the Portuguese language. The independence of Angola and Mozambique did contribute to the eventual liberation of Southern Africa. 

In Portugal, the advent of democracy allowed a free society to emerge under the 1976 constitution. The people’s living conditions improved markedly. In the 1970s, almost one quarter of the population was illiterate, now it is residual. Life expectancy grew from 67 to 81.5 years. Public services were not universal, but now everybody has access to education, healthcare, water, sanitation, electricity and public transport. And the police do not come knocking at doors in the middle of the night. If sometimes we have issues with corruption, the media and the courts deal with that. GDP grew. And the country became more open, diverse and exciting.

For Lithuania, the change was no less dramatic. After 50 years of occupation, first by the Soviets, then Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union again, the restoration of the independent Lithuanian state was proclaimed 31 years ago, on 11 March 1990

It brought to an end the suffering and loss of life associated with totalitarianism, the de facto colonial economic exploitation, as well as the suppression of basic human rights and freedoms. But the founding of a new state with independent institutions and the transition from the captive communist ideology-driven society to an open society has not been easy or free of obstacles.

Through perseverance Lithuania has grown to become a strong and vibrant democratic society with an open market economy. Lithuania now ranks 11th on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index. Accession to the European Union was a defining moment: institutions were transformed and laws harmonised to meet high governance standards within a relatively short period of time.

Today, both Portugal and Lithuania are proud members of the EU, Nato and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Our experience has been that freedom is closely linked to responsibility and that democracy is a daily process, a continuous effort … it is never complete: “A luta continua”. 

Democracy is complicated, cumbersome and convoluted and, to be effective, it requires time, effort and patience. It can be frustrating. Democracy without good governance cannot deliver — citizen participation is crucial to improving the people’s quality of life.

On the upside, a democratic government can be held to account and be voted out. To remove a dictator takes regime change, takes fighting and often takes blood spilling. Someone once said that “democracy is the worst system, except for all the others”.

As two friends of South Africa, living in this extraordinary country, we see the extreme inequality: food insecurity, a lopsided property and income distribution, inequality in education, housing and healthcare. And all this alongside extreme wealth. Daily we are confronted by the news of corruption, violent crime and struggling service delivery.

To address precisely such issues, we see in Europe that more democracy – not less – has been the answer in transforming our societies. Democratic freedoms have ensured that our people have been able to speak out, to act and to hold to account all actors in our respective countries.

In celebration of Freedom Day 2021, we salute South Africa on her achievements of freedom and democracy and continue to stand by all her people as they continue their struggle towards a more prosperous and equitable country.

Long live the South African democracy, long live!

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Manuel Carvalho
Manuel Carvalho is the ambassador of Portugal to South Africa
Dainius Junevičius
Dainius Junevičius is the ambassador of Lithuania to South Africa

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