Grappling with democracy 20 years later

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1994 election file photo AP File photo of teh general election on April 27, 1994. Photo: AP

Politicians must be forced to put the interests of the people first, says Esther Lewis.

 Democracy and the freedoms that come with it are something I took for granted for the longest time. After all, I’m a born semi-free. Now that I’m older, democracy is an issue I’ve been grappling with.

Like a host of others born in the 1980s, I was born too late to be an active member of the Struggle, and too early to be a born free.

There was no defining moment of the dawning of freedom or democracy for me. All I know is that one day, there were lots of ANC flags and pictures of Nelson Mandela on the fridge and around the house.

My parents left our home excited in the morning, and came back a few hours later, still excited. It was April 27, 1994.

There isn’t much I remember about apartheid or the transition. But the things I do recall are vivid and I suspect will never leave me.

I have a memory of being outside a supermarket, and an elderly white lady stopping my mother and me.

She tugged at my long hair, and went on inspecting me like I was a doll, a thing on display. I don’t know how old I was. It must have been when I was small enough to fit in the little seat in a trolley.

I was too young to understand why she would do that, but I did feel very odd about it.

I also remember sitting under the dank arches at Kalk Bay. It was crowded, dirty and we had to be very careful of stepping on shards of broken beer glass. I loved the ocean, but I hated it there.

The adults sheltered the younger children from a lot of what was happening. Politics was something so far removed from our daily existence that you’d swear nothing was wrong in the country. Well, almost.

I caught parts of conversations I didn’t understand from my older cousins. They spoke about Casspirs, teargas and riot police. The only Casper I knew of was of the friendly ghost variety.

We all started wearing “Peace in our land” T-shirts. I know that was in 1993 because that was the year my family did a road trip to KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga. We’re wearing the T-shirts in the pictures.

I recall a period of fear and paranoia among adults calling in to talk radio shows. People were scared of what “the blacks” were going to do to them. They were preparing for a civil war.

But what defined 1994 for me? I was 12 years old at the time, in primary school. My friends and I hung out together every waking moment, and listened to mix-tapes recorded from the radio. We watched double feature movies at the mall, complete with popcorn and coke for R10. Everyone wore Pepe jeans and Doc Martins. Life was okay.

In 1994, I watched SABC news as model C schools were desegregated. There was excitement, tears, and of course, fear.

I asked my parents if I could also go to a “white school”. They said no. I didn’t ask why and didn’t bring it up again.

The reality for me, and many like me, was that while we were now free, the status quo remained.

We were still contained by economics in our coloured neighbourhood, attending our coloured schools, hanging out with our coloured friends.

Just because we were free, didn’t mean that day-to-day life would change. We still couldn’t afford to move to a better area. My parents still couldn’t afford to send my siblings and me to model C schools. I think that’s when I realised that while democracy seemed nice, it wasn’t going to be a sudden fix-all.

Fast forward 20 years, and I’m glad I don’t have to sit under those disgusting arches at a harbour trying to pass itself off as a beach.

I have a career in a field previously dominated by white men. I now have black and white neighbours.

But while democracy has worked for me, how am I to completely enjoy it when I know for the majority, just surviving is a daily struggle?

Can we really say democracy has worked for the thousands who go to bed hungry, those depressed by joblessness and homelessness?

Does democracy matter to those who have no hope of accessing a good education, much less a job that pays a decent salary?

Until these issues are resolved, we need to stop patting ourselves on the back. We need to be less complacent in our country’s progress.

Politicians must be forced to put the interests of the people first. Only then can we start repaying the blood debt of our freedom.

* Esther Lewis is a Cape Argus writer.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.

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