This post was originally published last year (27.04.14). A year later, so much has changed. Our freedom has been re-articulated again. In some ways I feel incredibly proud because black students have taken a stand against oppression with the #RhodesMustFall campaign at the University of Cape Town. But I also feel deeply saddened by the xenophobia attacks on people from other African nations. Our freedom should not come at the cost of another’s. I love South Africa, though. And I will always remember what Nelson Mandela did for us and be grateful and humbled. I also know deep in my soul that the majority of South Africans are beautiful, kind beings. The violence and hatred and madness we see is a direct result of oppression and dehumanisation. It started with centuries of slavery, colonialism, and apartheid. But 20 years after “democracy”, people are still victim to an economic and social oppression. I hope for a change in leadership and I hope for economic empowerment for all.
Today, the 27th of April, is Freedom Day in South Africa. As I woke up this morning and looked at my phone, the date seemed to jump out before my eyes – its significance seemingly meaningful and momentous. And then the second after realising this another thought crossed my mind. As I lay, warm and comfy in my bed, shrouded by my privilege, I wondered whether I could ever really fully comprehend the significance of this day, this country’s history, our freedom.
20 years ago today our country, lead by the magnificent resurgent Nelson Mandela, went to the polls to vote in the first democratic election. Every time I read the word democratic these days, I get a bad taste in my mouth. You see it really doesn’t do justice to the real magnitude of that day. We still live in a democratic country and I do not think we will ever have another day of voting like that. Literally millions of South Africans, most of whom had never had the right to be considered human let alone vote, went to their nearest voting station, some in their nineties on crutches, and waited and waited and waited until eventually it was their turn to make their mark and vote for THEIR party.
As a white South African, I ask myself: is their freedom mine too? What will I ever know of their suffering? I was not around during the days of Apartheid and therefore did not have to comprehend first hand what was happening, which older white South Africans were forced to do. My mother, a liberal, says it was a very different time. There were privileges. She had a fine education paid for by the state, she had riches, she did not worry about crime. Her and her neighbours had undisputed access to absolutely everything this beautiful country had to offer. But there was also shame. She recalls feeling embarrassed about her national identity, intelligent and wordly enough to know that what was happening was wrong and unfair. It is safe to say she had absolutely no idea what was really happening – the violence, the torture, and the dehumanisation. That was very much kept from the public until the very end.
I have had to educate her, which the next generation is always responsible for. I went to university and read and listened. Still the notions of separation and segregation were mere constructs – lacy, academic words threaded by Lacan, Biko, Foucault, and the likes. But it was only really after graduating, during my internship year, that my education really took hold. Outside of the white-washed utopia of middle class Cape Town, I was introduced to the real South Africa in dusty, polluted, densely populated Gauteng. Here my understanding of difference, both racial and class, was expounded beyond the text books. Face to face with real people telling me their real stories I could not escape the reality of their suffering, their anger, and their hatred. The familiar taste of ignorance resurfaced. How can I as a young, white person really ever know this pain and therefore the glory that comes with this freedom.
So I ask myself today, what does our freedom mean to me? On a truly selfish level, I feel like I want to say, “Because I get to live in a country in which I am proud of, not ashamed of like I would have been during Apartheid”. But really, that can’t be it. No, today as I step out into the world I feel free because I think of Nelson Mandela, I think of the freedom fighters who broke rules and broke up their homes so that they could break down a system of oppression. I feel their sacrifices, the emotional scars left behind on their loved ones, and I recognise my privilege. I know that no one in this beautiful country should ever have to do that again. We all have the freedom now to take part in this country’s narrative. We all – no matter our race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, or political beliefs – have the freedom to live as we choose and contribute, if we choose, to the ongoing process of growth.
Let’s face it. There is still a lot of work to be done. The Struggle might be over but our struggles are not. Freedom is just the first breath taken by a new born infant. Now that we have it, we have the long journey of life ahead. And we’re doing it, we’re doing it. Step by Step.