What would our martyrs say if they could see us now?
April 6 – celebrated during the apartheid era from 1952-1994 as Founders Day (Stigtingsdag) in recognition of Jan van Riebeeck’s landing in Table Bay and the subsequent Dutch settlement in Cape Town – is also the day on which the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) was founded, in 1959, after breaking away from the ANC.
Cynically, the apartheid regime hanged the 22-year-old Solomon Mahlangu at Pretoria Prison on that fateful day in 1979, after he was denied any appeal that focused on his not having killed anyone.
Like our numerous holidays, both official and unofficial, we have not been short of martyrs to remember since the advent of democracy after our historic general election of April 27, 1994.
While our martyrs who were killed by, and at the height of, apartheid terror have largely been recognised along narrow partisan lines, Ahmed Timol (killed by the police on October 17, 1971), Onkgopotse Abram Ramothibi Tiro (killed by a parcel bomb in Botswana on February 1, 1974), Hector Pietersen (killed by the police on June 16, 1976), Mapetla Frank Mohapi (killed by police on August 5, 1976), Bantu Stephen Biko (killed by the police on September 12, 1977), Griffiths Mlungisi Mxenge (killed by the police on November 19, 1981), Neil Hudson Aggett (killed by police on February 5 1982), Ashley Kriel (killed by the police on July 20, 1987) and Martin Thembisile Chris Hani (killed by Janusz Waluś on April 10, 1993) are among the pantheon of liberation martyrs who seem to rise above the limitations of party political silos.
This general recognition is despite only a few of them being accorded any official recognition in our ungrateful country. Most South Africans have seemingly taken for granted the freedoms that we enjoy.
We have all but become accustomed to the rape and robbery that has weirdly become a prevailing morality where almost anything goes, defending gross criminality, admiring crass ill-gotten wealth. Perhaps in anticipation of receiving some of the proceeds of crime?
The noble principles that inspired the likes of Solomon Mahlangu, Steve Biko and Chris Hani who, in turn, left us with abiding and worthy lessons, seem hopelessly lost in the murky cesspool that passes for political and social engagement, especially on social media where the worst offenders can find refuge and affirmation.
This bizarre reality is made worse by the tremendous constraints and hardships that all of us confront in the Covid-19 pandemic conditions.
We have become all too willingly socialised by bribery and corruption, where one group – usually out of power – blames another group that is in power.
All of us are witness to pandemic profiteering that continues unabated. If anything, we have carved our niche for protecting criminal behaviour from on high or those we rely on, tirelessly spewing specious argument that those who are unlikely to be charged and appear in the dock may surprisingly be embarrassed by!
What would our martyrs, who gave their all so that we may experience this democracy, say about this grim and clearly worsening plight, is a question that will be differently answered.
Such answers will vary unrecognisably, depending significantly on our belief and tolerance for lies and stupidity.
These are questions that all of us dare not shrink from. The answers will determine our collective and better future, where all of us have access to better education, health and opportunity, which have tragically been trampled on by self-serving powerful individuals who are buffered by access to the best lawyers, media and buying of support.
All by courtesy of this free-to-rob South Africa, made available through public coffers. They cry for, but do everything to avoid, their day in court at our collective expense, diminishing trust in law and order and bent on creating smokescreens that they hope will hide their crimes against the poor, needy and deserving.
Our martyrs would intercede to staunch the prevailing ethic: a rampant corrupt society that tends to eulogise wondrous misfits and narcissists. Our martyrs would openly acknowledge that such self-ascribed and false greatness has been built on little objective good deeds.
Our martyrs would not have allowed such a situation to have developed and would not use ridiculous excuses to justify the unconscionable.
They would say “Not in my name” and call out those who benefit from preying on public resources, and who patently buy favour and resist accountability.
On April 27 our democracy will be stridently lauded in boring official functions. We would do well to mourn the loss of our agency and ability to hold public officials accountable on this Freedom Day and make South Africa work for all, not just the chosen inner circle of predators and sycophants. We can, and must, stop the rot that engulfs us!
* Professor Saths Cooper is a former political prisoner who was jailed with late former president Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. He was a member of the 1970s group of activists. He is now president of the Pan-African Psychology Union.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.