Usha Naidu poses this question as we look forward to celebrating Freedom Day this weekend.
Durban - The irony of booking a weekend getaway in Clarens in the Free State this Freedom Day weekend did not escape me.
Once the enclave of white Afrikaner nationalists, Indians were not allowed in this part of the country. The Statute Law of the Orange Free State dictated this. Other laws, such as the Durban Land Alienation Ordinance No 14 of 1922, would have ensured that, as a person of colour, I could not own property in the leafy suburb where I now live.
Just eight years short of a full century later, life as it was then is unimaginable now.
It is thanks to the efforts and single-minded pursuit of their goal by our erstwhile freedom fighters that we enjoy these freedoms of travel and residence now. As they pass into the realms of history, having forged a new order for the generations to come, we honour their lives, lived with a purpose to bring about social change and elevate every human being in this country to equal importance.
Their vision was to see a united people, commonly identified by their love for this country. They envisaged a country where the citizens, on acquiring their freedom, treated each other with the dignity and respect that had been so lacking before. We shall remember them fondly as we celebrate Freedom Day on Sunday.
But are we truly free? Dare we say that they were naive in thinking that once freedom was attained and the baton passed, the citizens of this country would be able to handle the responsibility that came with this transition?
The current state of affairs can attest to this fact. We cannot be truly free until we can remove the burglar bars from our homes and businesses, the alarm systems and the other crime-fighting paraphernalia we have installed to ensure that we remain safe in the one haven of security we seek at the end of a day.
We cannot remain free until our children can play in the neighbourhood without fear of molestation or abduction.
We cannot remain free while the scourge of rampant crime holds each of us hostage to fear.
We cannot call ourselves “free” either, when, daily, new legislation comes up enslaving us to the old ideology. Race quotas in sport and employment equity bills are said to address the “imbalances of the past”, for which innocent citizens are being held accountable.
Our democracy is 20 years old this year. This is around the age when most people are entering the job market or playing sport professionally, so a citizen born in 1994, who was not part of the old order, is being affected by these quotas. This has led to the brain drain, making other countries the happy recipients of our skills and talents.
Even now, a common identity as a South African has not been forged. Race identification is still required on many forms and forums, even by universities and government departments, who use this information to enforce quotas, harking back to an era reminiscent of white nationalist thinking, simply reversed now to favour the current status quo.
The latest in this line of thinking is to be found in the draft Employment Equity Bill. It is creating consternation among minority groups. It is another stressor in a country where the emphasis is on using our past to justify the present.
Not even the example set by other models of democracy can guide our citizenry in their own practice of democracy.
We are obsessed with American culture in this country. We allow their every export to permeate our lives. We listen to their music, adopt their mannerisms and dress, and even align ourselves to their struggle with oppression. Yet the law and order that permeates their culture has not seeped into ours. Their national pride is so great that many fly the American flag in their gardens.
Their police force is seen as servants of the community as well as upholders of the law. Their government departments are places of efficiency and, although corruption is present, it is exposed and eradicated when found.
Their politicians are held accountable for their actions and must be seen to be working in the best interests of the citizens they serve. They would resign out of shame for any scandal. They do not even fear impeaching their president when his actions were less than honourable.
Not one of these tenets applies here, despite their model being revered by our citizens. Our politicians wear their scandals as badges of honour. The laissez faire attitude that has infiltrated every stratum of South African society has left many criminals without fear of retribution, knowing that shoddy police work, a sympathetic legal system or connections in the upper echelons of government could see them walk away without any reprisal for their actions.
Corruption has become so endemic to this country that it has permeated every aspect of life. People expect bribes, tenders and other compensation as a right for having a disadvantaged past. Hard work, dedication to the task and service to other citizens have fallen by the wayside as “old fashioned” notions.
The person who does things “by the book” rarely exists as the norm, but is seen as the exception who is “behind the times”. The practices of merit and equal opportunities for all exist as ideals to which we once aspired, long forgotten in our need to become the new elite. It is a sad indictment of our society.
So what would it take to be truly free from the stress of living in this country? What would make our erstwhile freedom fighters beam with pride that their legacy is being looked after? It would take strong, visionary leadership from the political party in charge.
It would take their commitment to actively address the needs of every citizen without putting their own needs for wealth and prestige first. It would take a change in mindset of our citizens towards civic and national pride and a determined effort to make this democracy work, despite the challenges. It would take conscious effort to nurture this democracy.
We can’t continue on a path of stubborn resistance to reading signs of discontent. We cannot afford not to change. Nor can we cling to a painful past. We cannot be so convinced of the rightness of addressing past imbalances to the detriment of future generations. We cannot alienate any sector of the population and yet claim that we live in a democracy.
If we do, we are still shackled to the past. Then we have no right to celebrate a non-existent freedom.