The 27th of April 1994 is a day that your history teacher in school would never let you forget. As discussed in the first part of this series the day we now know as freedom day was met with a lot of promise.
It was an explosion of happiness and excitement bringing about feelings that have now turned sour. We spoke to four UJ academics who reflected on the how much has changed and remained the same in the past two decades.
Prof Jane Duncan, Journalism Lecturer
“It’s been very different on subsequent voting days because I don’t think that voting has been nearly as popular as it was at that stage. I think it’s lost that kind of communal feeling and that sense of excitement that existed in ’94. And of course, for many people, it was the first time that they were voting so there was also that novelty aspect to it as well.
Apparently, scepticism is nothing new for South Africans. “Many people at that stage were also quite weary about what the transition meant. Not everyone was starry-eyed.”
Duncan explained how voters were critical of the outcome of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) negotiations. “We had a transition that got rid of formal apartheid although there was the government left social relations intact in the country. I think we still live the legacy of that compromise now.”
South Africans cannot wait for someone else to do things for them we need to roll up our sleeves.
Thea de Wet, Director of Centre for Academic Technologies (CAT)
“I think we live in a very negative atmosphere which is very unnecessary. If you look at world history and the history of countries all countries go through these cycles. We’re not the only country with a president that’s problematic if you look around the world there are many of them.”
“South Africans are a bunch of moaners,” she said. “We always want someone else to fix the problem. I’m not saying people shouldn’t protest, I’m not against protests. But I think now you burn down the school, you steal from people while you loot you think you’ve actually done a wonderful thing but it’s not going to make a big difference. So what about just rolling up your sleeves and doing something as a community.”
de Wet said that although we cannot change the national situation so easily we could always foster change in our own communities. She referred to an environmental initiative in her own community. Two weeks ago “around my area, we had a cleaning up operation. You put gloves on and you just clean,” she said.
Thea believes in the power of the youth. “I’m a very optimistic person. I see a good future. The Zuma government will come to an end soon, younger people will take over. Younger people with a different vision for the country, with less baggage and hopefully less greed. Look at the university it’s full of very smart young people.”
de Wet also emphasised the importance of healthy criticism coming from academics. “Academic freedom is very important. It’s important to speak your mind and not land in jail like people in Turkey.”
South Africa is simply following a pattern that exists in post-colonial African societies.
Prof Dumisani Moyo, HOD of Journalism, Film and Television
“It’s like [that] in every other African country, you find that a few years down the line people start questioning whether the Euphoria of independence was well-placed or it was miss-placed euphoria. You see that among the promises of ’94 were these big issues around equality, around economic redistribution, around empowerment of black people that have been formally oppressed.
Then you fast-track to today, then you understand the frustration that you start seeing across the country in service delivery and other things, where you find that the liberation movement has fallen far short of what it had promised. And you start seeing some of those very typical accesses that you have seen in other African countries, post-independence, where you start seeing images of amassing wealth, and intolerance in terms of clamping down on people’s freedoms. Not so much here in South Africa in terms of those things, but I think the general feeling that the leadership has abandoned its moral compass.
“Where looting becomes one characteristic feature of the new dispensation, the leadership is more inward looking and looking at the personal accumulation of wealth at the expense of looking at the poorest in society. The challenge in the country is that you now have the society being pushed to become one of the most unequal societies in the world.”
“And that is the biggest crisis that you face where the gap between the rich and poor has continued to widen, and it seems very little is being done to try to narrow that gap. So all these things that you now see about state capture and so on these are fundamental challenges where you begin to see that actually some of the promises have not been carried through perhaps in fear of rocking the boat in terms of chasing away investors.”
“All the governments from Mandela, to Mbeki to Zuma now, none of these governments have done anything that is radical enough to transform the economy. You find that the whole language of radical transformation gains currency because new organisations such as the EFF, which is now trying to appropriate the language of the freedom charter and make it their own.”
“Everybody now is trying to compete in terms of who owns the freedom, the language of the freedom charter. There is deep frustration and for me, it’s quite sad because South Africa being the last to go through decolonisation you would imagine it would have learnt a lot from the other post-colonial African countries.”
“Of course they did learn; they came up with a brilliant constitution, the economy is still fairly strong but I think in terms of addressing the core issues that people were fighting for there are big question marks and one could talk about [a] significant degree of failure or betrayal of the masses if you want to put it that way.
Many socio-economic problems remain despite a significant improvement in the political arena.
Prof Salim Vally, Director of the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation
The issues faced under apartheid are still rife “because the structure of the economy has not changed because for many people having the right to vote and basic democratic rights, while important, remain hollow since ‘you can’t eat the vote’ is what a lot of people say. And certainly, we have repeated the mistakes made by other post-colonial countries.” Karl Marx said: “First time as tragedy, second time as comedy.”
“I just think that looking back there’s a deep sense of disappointment. There’s a questioning about this trajectory we chose and it’s an understanding that comes with knowing facts like inequality continues massively. That racism is part of the warp and woof of the fabric of society. That while there was change it did not benefit the vast majority but those who were privileged in the past and a new layer, a small layer, of the black elite. But basically, the vast majority of black people in our country have not seen the kinds of changes that many of us struggled for.”
“I don’t think it’s still too late I think there’s a lot of work to be done and we can turn the situation around. But certainly, the level of corruption and what we have witnessed over the past two decades has disillusioned many people. So there is a sense of depression but I think that the only way to deal with it, is to be [involved] in the new movements that are starting, that are springing up and to listen to the young people who are trying to change the situation and who are not satisfied with the failed promises.”
So what now?
Twenty-three years into independence and South Africa’s transition into a post-apartheid society has been rocky. Many had predicted the situation we would be in and here we are. A healthy dose of scepticism is needed in order to properly navigate the space we’re in politically. Although corruption may be unacceptable the impact of our colonial history needs to be taken into account. Redressing inequalities that were crafted over 300 years ago is not easy to do in just two decades.