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Nearly 30 years later, the memory and significance of Freedom Day has disappeared

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Picture: Supplied/Enver Essop – Athlone high school mural in the province of the Western Cape, South Africa.

By Prof. Saths Cooper

As we prepare for another long weekend with two official public holidays, let’s briefly consider whether these nationally-recognised days are celebratory or commemorative.

The first is our Freedom Day in remembrance of the glorious first-ever general elections of 1994, which saw the beloved, even revered, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela assume the presidency of a democratic South Africa. Thursday, April 27, will mark that signal moment in our history when millions of us, who were never afforded the right to vote by European oppressors and marauders, celebrated In a heady spirit of sheer joy, embracing them, expecting them to reciprocate. There was no threat of turning against those who had done their damnedest to deny us the basic universal rights that we are assured by our glorious Constitution.

Twenty-nine years later: the memory and significance of that important day has disappeared. The joy has disappeared. The “rainbow” spirit of reconciliation has disappeared. The hope that things will change for the better has disappeared, replaced by an all-pervasive sense of despondency. Hope simply seems to evade the overwhelming majority of us; black or white, urban or rural, young or old, but not rich or poor.

The rich – and those countless vassals who protect the rich, who benefit from the rich, and who constantly apologise for and defend the rich – simply take for granted their ill-gotten wealth, lauding it over those they regard as stupid enough to be poor, outside the circle of privilege. And we just allow them to do so, admiring them, aspiring to be them while the greater majority have to contend with a bleak and desolate present and a worse future.

All the statistics tell us that we are descending into a chasm of never-ending dependency, almost non-existent agency, totally discarded, hopeless and defeated by an imposed reliance on hand outs. Beggared in the land of our birth, imprisoned by promises never kept, treated as an eye-sore that should vanish into invisibility so that those who vacation on these important national holidays can continue to enjoy the best that our money can buy them. One reason why we just retain our title of the most unequal country on earth.

To add insult to injury, worker bosses feel entitled to cry worker interest at the drop of a hat. They seem to display little insight into and callous disregard for the plight of those who they well know will remain being the vast majority of unemployed in a country with the highest unemployment and lowest employment rates in the world. This underclass – not to be seen, not to be heard – just cannot be destined to rise from the mire of poverty and learned helplessness that engulf them and their unfortunate offspring. The majority of our children will grow up stunted by physical, psychological, nutritional, intellectual, economic, social, spatial and other exclusion. Yet another lost generation that will take more than a generation to recover from the ills visited on them.

Whether these national public holidays are a celebration or a commemoration – usually a solemn remembrance – at least a mark of respect is observed. Increasingly, our ability to express pride in our historic achievements has been overshadowed by division, disarray, and discordance in almost all spheres of our private and public lives. We’ve reached such a low point that is visibly reflected in the appalling state of the graves of the sterling men and women who gave their lives for this democracy.

Without a doubt, the negotiated settlement that the former colonial powers, big business, the apartheid regime, and the glorious liberation movement signed off on 29 years ago was intended to be a transition, not a self-defeating permanence which excludes the majority who constitute the underclass. What we now confront is an implacable wall of resistance from the new minority: the political and economic elite. Digging their heels in, they have become immune to any reality that even vaguely can upset their cosy comfort zones, which they have now become accustomed to. Indeed, claim it as their right.

We retained much of the past in our government business. The feeble attempts to reform and reduce the Cabinet, to create a professional civil service that is responsive and simple, does what it is paid to do, has become another nightmare, ensuring that bright, qualified people look elsewhere to retain their integrity. Very little in our public life seems to work.

Even our judiciary, which had credibility, seems to be losing its gravitas and moral authority. But then, we all do wear the marks of our origin in some way, especially when things go bad. A truly one person, one vote system, where there is direct accountability to the electorate, still eludes us. So beholden have our parliamentarians become to their party bosses that they failed to transform an outdated electoral system that lends itself to unprincipled conduct. When our children – the majority in our country – witness self-serving, obscene ill-gotten wealth, crooks running amok without consequence, their dreams lay shattered before they reach voting age. Most of our youth are not part of the democratic system, are out of school and out of work. We, their parents, seem not to care in an environment where it’s so easy to hear evil, see evil and become part of the madding mob that wants to be part of benefiting from evil.

We can do better. Our people deserve better. We have better amongst us. They can be a bulwark against the crass mind-boggling mediocrity that tends to always drag us down, making us a laughing stock in our region and further afield.

As young people did in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the fight against apartheid and its Bantustan monstrosities, overcoming fear, asserting themselves into all spheres of influence, refusing to succumb to complacency, claiming their rightful place in the life of their country, which needs them now more than ever before, young people can once again claim the high ground, becoming more independent and depending on themselves for “freedom and not take it for granted that someone would lead (them) to it.”

Steve Biko would add: “You should be tired of standing at the touchlines to witness a game that you should be playing. You should want to do things for yourselves and all by yourselves.”

Prof Saths Cooper is President of the PanAfrican Psychology Union, a former leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, a political prisoner and a member of the 1970s group of activists.