I was recently asked by a university based radio station to comment on the significance of April 27. As I began to reflect on what the day means for me, I also started to consider whether the importance of the day has lost its fizz. Perhaps I am being a little bit facetious in making such a statement, but the question got me to consider when freedom becomes less than an ideal and more of a survival mechanism. Of course the Geneva born social contract theorist, Jean Jacque Rousseau’s, famous quote ‘Man is born free, yet everywhere in chains’ has become a sombre rite of passage in the current contours underpinning the country’s fate of the nation and the body politic of the state.
But has 28 years of a hard earned struggle for democracy and the corresponding political and civil freedoms become a misnomer in the post-apartheid state. Should our expectations be tempered towards what has become the modus operandi in most post independent liberation states, where the real struggle for transformation only happens after the euphoria of gaining independence settles. And as Antonio Gramsci notes that ‘…in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’.
So in light of more than a quarter of a century of our democratic dispensation becoming a reality, how should we interpret ‘Freedom Day’? Some may have little to celebrate in terms of being free; others may not even remember what freedom is given their parlous state of survival; and then there are those who may take a cynical outlook that freedom is only as valuable as the paper it is written on.
Yet in trying to gauge where we are heading, it may be important to consider the road travelled since the fateful day on 27 April 1994 and reflect on its pivotal nature and what inspired the electorate to put their fate and freedom in the hands of the ballot box.
The Road less travelled
To be honest 27 April 1994 was a pivotal moment in South Africa’s post-apartheid and democratic history. It was a momentous occasion because it constituted a significant historical epoch in the body politic of the state that was previously characterised by the exclusion of the majority of black South Africans from enjoying their inherent universal rights. It represented a road that was less travelled by those who had sacrificed their blood, sweat and tears to endure economic hardship and experience the most inhumane and heinous political and social system of repression.
The expectation was akin to the song from the 1976 student protest inspired play that was made into a movie, Sarafina, ‘Freedom is coming’. Or for that matter the satirical political play ‘Woza Albert’ that explored the second coming of Jesus during the dark days of apartheid. The day did not just signify a road ahead of dignity, hope, and respect, it also implied a change in material circumstances. For most of the majority standing in snaking voting lines, they were expecting decent housing, running water, modernised sanitation, equitable access to education, health care and overall access to social services that would provide not just ‘A better life for all’ but more importantly an existence that would be defined by self-respect. It was also the moment that parents could point to the day and say to their children ‘we voted for a better future for you’.
Sadly when the sheen wore off after the first 10 to 15 years, the value addition of Freedom Day was becoming its own existential threat.
It is not this author’s intention to be dismissive that there were no gains to be measured. But what is perhaps critical to note is that scale of the democratic project was massive with deepening anticipations while the distribution of resources were dwindling. And so the quest for a substantive democracy become the road less travelled and the narrative that freedom had been guaranteed in terms of the Bill of Rights as enshrined in the Constitution became all the more compelling achievement.
The end result is what Frantz Fanon defines as a Manichean dilemma in the colonial state but morphs into a psychological disorder in post liberation societies underlined by tensions against the authority and class politics based on George Orwell’s axiom on power, which in this context can be described as everybody is free but some are more free than others.
A Disillusioned Citizenry or A Precariat Nation?
In Mahmood Mamdani’s seminal work on Citizen and Subject, the notion of a bifurcated state is discussed in which it is asserted that its existence is predicated on the colonial state and ‘lives on in the post-colonial state’ based on a ‘dualism power’ that is differentiated between how power is asserted or diffused between urban centres and rural beltways. In his latest book ‘Prisoners of the Past’ Prof Steven Friedman provides the following summary of the interpretation of Mamdani’s thesis:
In urban areas, the colonial power ruled directly. In the countryside, it relied on ‘decentralised despotism’: it handed authority to ‘traditional leaders’ (who were not always entirely traditional since some were appointed by the colonising power) who ruled on the colonial state’s behalf by imposing order on the leader’s subjects, ensuring that they would not disturb minority rule.
In South Africa, this was a core feature of apartheid: black people were assigned citizenship in ‘ethnic homelands’ ruled by ‘traditional leaders’ chosen by the state, not because they were authentically traditional, but because they would cooperate in imposing order. At independence throughout Africa, rule was, Mamdani believes, deracialised, but ‘decentralised despotism’ stayed
To this end it would appear that the ‘bifurcated state’ remains not just a disruptor to the formal integration of the post-apartheid state but it also acts as a disturbance to how the
negotiated settlement created freedom, based purely on a political project. In this way exposing the fault lines of Kwame Nkrumah’s assertion ‘Seek ye political kingdom first and all else shall be added to you’. This is where the juxtaposition between political versus economic freedom has laid bare the vulnerabilities of a South African population that is becoming more disconnected from the symbolism of Freedom Day.
As we are reminded that our freedom should not be taken for granted, the reality in society is that the citizenry are, indeed, struggling to illustrate how their material status has changed and improved. Perhaps the issue is not how free we but rather what is the country’s happiness barometer in this regard.
According to the 2022 Happiness Index, South African ranked 103 out of 149 countries assessed in the survey. Whether it is the constant battle to seek a better life, the deepening scourge of poverty, inequality and financial malfeasance, the following perspective highlights the inflection point we have reached regarding Freedom Day:
As South Africans, we don’t get to be playful, or grumpy, or stingy, or sexy, or any one of 100 other options for national stereotypes. We get to be RESILIENT. A nation of resilient little battlers, constantly picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off after national tragedy or government scandal… What, actually, is the point of a government?…. This is a tinderbox of a state, teetering on the edge from years of corrupt misrule. This is things well and truly falling … apart. This is a government that has failed its people again, and again, and again.
The above characterisation shows that the incumbent ruling party cannot use the claim of liberation as the sole basis for credibility or legitimacy. And when the citizenry becomes disillusioned, the nation will lean towards a precariat identity. The latter cannot be more true than for the youth and future generation of the country who look at their parents constantly battling for survival to say ‘This will not be Us’. And for all intents and purposes it is this group of young people that have made the conscious decision to break with the past, no matter how significant it is in providing the foundation for their freedom.
April 27 as Freedom Day has come to signify varying degrees of success with equal amounts of despair. The state of the nation illustrates that it far from being even moderately at ease with the status quo. What makes it more disparaging is that it is no longer a single class of people that remain apathetic to what was a decisive moment in our 28 years of democracy. The rhetoric of what the day symbolises no longer captures the imagination of the majority of the electorate. Some would argue that the day has become part of the subterfuge by the ruling elite to deviate from the real meaning and purpose of the day for selfish gains. When all is said and done, how many of us actually felt that the day represented our interests and future trajectory and whether the bells that figuratively rang out to honour the day actually
included the majority of the nation’s hearts and minds. As the saying goes: For Whom do the Bells Toll?
Ms Naidu is a Senior Research Associate and Political Analyst based with the Institute for Global Dialogue. This views expressed here are personal.