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TODAY is Freedom Day. It marks the day when millions of South Africans were able to vote as one nation, many of them for the first time ever in their lives. That was 18 years ago.
This year, the children who were born in 1994 are eligible to vote for the first time.
The so-called “born frees” reach adulthood, many of them with little or no interest in the momentous events that led up to the year of their birth. Many other older South Africans have been left bitterly disappointed in what has been achieved since.
The dawn of democracy heralded incredible jubilation, hamstrung almost from inception by the unprecedented weight of expectation of a people who had finally been set free after centuries of oppression.
Notwithstanding that, in the following two decades, the government would pass a raft of laws, starting with our much vaunted and widely acclaimed constitution, in a bid to create the legislative framework to transform the South African dream into reality.
Democracy has not always been the magical panacea that we all hoped it might become. Instead, in some places “one man one vote” has morphed into “one family one bucket”, as the residents of Diepsloot, outside Johannesburg, can attest.
In this case, the mayor wasn’t a National Party apparatchik, but a representative of the people’s African National Congress, sitting in an office not a million miles away from the problem, but almost next door. The foot-dragging, though, was almost the same.
The mother of the 17-year-old girl gang-raped by youths might also wonder what 1994 means to her family. So too the family of Andries Tatane, killed by police officers in Ficksburg in the Free State last year.
And this is one of the enduring paradoxes of our young society: we have the laws to make us a safe and nurturing society, yet far too often we have neither the resources nor the political will to deal with those who enrich themselves through illicitly won tenders meant to provide the people with school books and houses.
Our society is perhaps freer and more tolerant than at any time in the last 400 years – and yet our media are under the same onslaught as in the dying throes of the apartheid regime, while our judiciary is under constant pressure to reflect the will of the ruling party. For a country that benefited so much from the largesse of the rest of the continent, we responded with some of the worst examples of xenophobia to the new generation of the African diaspora trying to find succour and safety in our land.
But we have also achieved much that is laudable, so much so that it goes often unheralded.
Our country might be a battleground of conflicting and competing tensions, but it is also a country that has totally demilitarised from the knife edge of the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the streets in some of our townships were battle zones flowing with blood.
It is a country where racist outbursts and incidents are the exception and roundly condemned because of the scale and scope of racial integration across the workplace, in the suburbs and in the classrooms.
Like any other 18-year-old, we are at an important crossroads in our life as a nation. The road we take tomorrow and the next couple of months will determine whether we intend squandering our birthright or developing it to its true potential.