South Africa’s Freedom Day: 18 stories of democracy

Freedom Day stands as a reminder of the courage and sacrifices of all those who fought for an end to apartheid.

South Africa
Apartheid, which separated black and white people, officially came to an end 18 years ago [GALLO/GETTY]

Exeter, United Kingdom – Eighteen years of “Freedom Day” may not seem much in the career of South Africa’s fledgling democracy. Nonetheless, it sums up the iconography of suffering, struggle and rebirth of a nation.

The narration of South Africa’s transition defies the usual metrics used by the gurus of transitology. It can only be framed through stories of people-hood that go beyond the electoral imperative.

It was the day of the ballot. It could have easily been a day for the bullet. It was a day of black and white. It would have been a racial day, had not April 27, 1994, been a landmark in the inauguration of a non-racial democracy.

With that ballot, iconic as it were in every sense of the word, independence, democracy, freedom, solidarity and de-routing the destiny of an entire nation from a dark past, all fused in a historical moment of collective rebirth.

Just as 1652 stands for the arrival white colonials at the Cape, 1994 crowns 342 years of resistance against the racist usurpation of humanity, land and freedom – which escalated in 1948 with the formalisation of apartheid at the hands of the supremacist Nationalist Party. It was the onset of the racialisation of polity, society and economy.

Indeed, “Freedom Day” is a meme of people-hood not only in South Africa, but also across the continent. It equals, if not supersedes, in significance all the memes of emancipation in the continent that capture the essence of decolonisation fought and won with blood, sweat and tears in the 20th century.

South African society through lens of youth

Above all else, in socio-political terms, April 27, 1994, marked the opening, not just of a historical chapter in the lives of post-apartheid South Africa, but, more importantly, of a laboratory in nation and state-building.

Road to freedom

Before they had a taste of freedom on Freedom Day in 1994, when they voted for the first time as human beings – regardless of colour or gender – black South Africans cried freedom, paying a high price for a most worthy cause.

They cried for the freedom of blacks when they created the African National Congress and launched resistance in 1912. They rose up in Kliptown in 1955 when the adopted Freedom Charter’s words drafted democracy’s first story in South Africa. It would take another 39 years before the words of that charter rang true: “South Africa is for all who inhabit it, black and white, and that no power can justly claim authority only through the will of the people.”

A friend, Dr Garth Le Pere, who is a Senior Partner with DAJO, in Pretoria, is from Kliptown – where the founding stone was laid for the rebirth of a free South Africa in the mid-1990s. He states that the Freedom Charter, the drafting of which involved many disenfranchised blacks, essentially enshrined the twin ethos of democratisation and de-racialisation of South Africa.

As he puts it succinctly, there was a world of difference between the ethos communicated by the Freedom Charter and the founding of the republic created in 1961 as the exclusive bastion of white citizens. He adds the “blacks and the coloured were relegated to a secondary and even tertiary status of citizens”: apartheid’s denizens until Freedom Day, April 27, 1994.

Unlike Freedom Day, which is now celebrated by black and white, rich and poor in post-apartheid South Africa, “Republic Day” was an exclusively racial event in apartheid’s calendar of racialised nation and state-building. Dr Le Pere, whose Yale doctorate was on the narratives of struggle in South Africa, notes that “as if to add insult to injury, on top of all the other racist forms of exclusion lived daily by non-whites – such as the draconian measure restricting blacks’ movement in public space after 6pm – Republic Day was used by the National Party to celebrate racism and exclusion”.

Initially, politics did not prove to be the art of the possible in negotiating power-sharing and the levelling of the playing field – racism was legal under apartheid and, very few qualified exceptions, the scruples of world powers did not care much for South Africa’s non-whites being at zero point, a sub-human category. “Blood diamonds” and business were too important to warrant a change of heart on moral issues such as equality, racism etc.

When politics fails – as in the script of humans struggling against inequality at the hands of white settlers and colonials in Africa and the Middle East – resistance takes over. This was the context within which the ANC resorted to supplement political struggle with armed resistance, forming the Umkhonto we Sizwe in the 1960s to add leverage to its campaign for freedom.

Enter post-apartheid social lab

Nothing is more emblematic of the 1994 democratic transition, including the constitution of post-apartheid South Africa, than the moral undertaking to right the wrongs of the apartheid era. Levelling the playing field through rolling back apartheid’s trinity: poverty, inequality and unemployment; was integral for this undertaking.

Eighteen years later, Freedom Day still warms the hearts of millions, and the passions of freedom are worth dear life itself for the millions of formerly disempowered blacks and coloured.

The social lab founded on the aforementioned morality is today doubtful, despite the massive popular goodwill, sacrifice and continuous faith in the 1994 transition that Nelson Mandela, among many other heroes, facilitated through the skill to reach out, the will-power to forgive, and the humility to learn how, in politics, the proverbial equality before the law is thicker than race or status.

That faith, two presidents later, is being shaken, as the seas of the poor in many a township across nine provinces may potentially sink South Africa’s ship of government and state-building in unchartered waters. The morality of the 1994 transition is today ceding to the immorality of corruption, inequality and, above all else, the ills of poverty and unemployment – in some parts as high as 45 per cent.  

“They created Freedom Day to be a manifesto of eternal and indivisible liberation so that ‘never again would a minority … impose itself on the majority’.

South Africa’s social lab began 18 years ago with the kind of “Arab Spring” pacted transition that raised expectations of social and political emancipation. Instead, some are today victims to the trappings of power, including within the ANC itself, and many more are caught in the trap of endemic poverty and uncertainty, in a country with boundless beauty, riches, and talented people.

Freedom Day: An African beacon

Long before the Arab Spring brightened the sea of darkness in Africa, April 27, 1994, rose high on the horizon of freedom like a red sun in a clear blue sky. That clarity of message, bright passion and boundless horizon of the ethos of emancipation sparked hope across many a geography and polity within and without Africa.

In Africa, that “revolution” and its attendant transition reminded others of the potentiality for the good of politics when people-hood, leadership and collective ownership over democratic futures joined forces. The stories of that transition and the passions of whites and blacks that made it happen will never fade away. They are part and parcel of the global narrative of transition, and one chapter in the transit of our humanity in its journey to challenge itself by defeating the negativity that demeans the human condition.

Integral to those stories is the courage, pain, suffering and morality of men and women, in the millions, of all races, who paid a high price to reify Freedom Day. They created freedom day to be a manifesto of eternal and indivisible liberation so that “never again would a minority … impose itself on the majority”.

Yet 18 years on, Freedom Day, no doubt a beacon of hope, light and people-hood across Africa – which has lots to learn from South Africa’s transition – calls for a pause and some reflection. There is today a risk of disempowerment for a majority; and a minority intermittently, sporadically, but surely, threatened by the wrath of the hungry, South Africa’s very wretched of the earth.

Maybe in South Africa, as in the countries of northern Africa, the atmospherics for revolution are already in the making – unless the pledge that a minority is never again to subjugate a majority is heeded seriously and urgently.

The original social lab of Mandela and Oliver and Adelaide Tambo (and others) now calls for reflection and critical assessment. As my friend Le Pere, puts it, the writing is on the wall.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).