SA must take meaningful steps in what remains of its long walk to freedom

12th February 2010 By: Aubrey Matshiqi

This month, South Africa is celebrating two historically significant events. The first is  former President FW de Klerk's speech to the apartheid Parliament, on February 2, 1990.

In that speech, he announced the unbanning of organisations and liberation movements like the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania. More importantly, De Klerk announced that Nelson Mandela would be released from 27 years of incarceration. I did not hear the speech because I was in class, conducting a mathematics lesson.

As I walked out of the classroom, a schoolgirl, who did not live to see the 1994 democratic breakthrough, came running towards me, shouting something that, at first, sounded as unintelligible as the delirium of the bout of malaria that ended her life a few months later. With tears in her eyes, she hugged me and told me that her brother would be coming home because De Klerk had unbanned the ANC. Nine days later, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison a free man with the aspirations of millions of the oppressed weighing heavily on his shoulders.

When Madiba walked out of prison to lead the ANC, an oppressed people, moved by its yearning for freedom, walked away from prison walls that had failed to intern the desire for liberty.

While much has changed and has been achieved since 1994, some leaders and members of the ANC seem to have forgotten why Madiba and other leaders of the liberation movement spent what must have felt like an eternity in apartheid dungeons. They soil the memory of Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko and others who died for our freedom with what is fast becoming the monotonous regularity of political acts whose content is devoid of the purity of the sacrifices of struggle.

In an ironic twist of history, De Klerk looked back on what South Africa had achieved since 1994 and argued that there were more assets than liabilities in the balance sheet of postapartheid South Africa. On the other hand, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela looked back with a tinge of sadness since, as she says, some of the things that are happening in the country and the ANC "are not what we fought for.

What went wrong?

To some extent, we are victims of our own expectations. We have fallen victim to the gap between myth and reality. The real ANC and its mythical version are clearly at odds with each other. The superheroes of the liberation struggle are possessed by the same spirit of self-aggrandisement which we thought would never form part of the genetic order of postapartheid politics.

As a result, we can safely say that Madiba's long walk to freedom is still many miles ahead of us. While the procedural dimensions of our democracy have performed satisfactorily, people cannot eat elections, democratic institutions and the Constitution. Democratic procedures do not shelter the poor from the ravages of hunger, disease, ignorance and want. Shelter from these dogs of underdevelopment can come only from the substantive dimensions of our postapartheid reality.

This reality is not going to change unless the ruling party mends its ways and cures its deficits of leadership and principle.
But it is not the ANC alone that must shoulder the responsibility of curing the deficits that have emerged since 1994. The fact that reconciliation exists more in the realm of aspiration than as the lived reality of most South Africans is a matter that requires our urgent attention. We must not pretend that all is well on the reconciliation front when there now exist postapartheid liberation movements whose goal is the preservation of white privilege. Two hours of watching the film Invictus at a cinema near you does not amount to reconciliation. This is but two hours of escapism if, outside the movie theatre, we do nothing to tackle the actual status of the reconciliation project in this country.

We must, however, not lose our sense of perspective. It is very easy to wallow in a sense of despair and pessimism when, in fact, the core tension today is between the aspirations of the poorest of the poor on the one hand, and the scope and pace of delivery on the other. This is not a tension caused by a complete lack of delivery. It results mainly from the gap between what was promised and the quality of what has been delivered.

The twentieth anniversary of Madiba's release from prison presents us with an opportunity to take meaningful steps in what remains of our long walk to freedom.