Much soul searching as South Africa marks Freedom Day

Then-President Nelson Mandela holds hands with former Deputy President Frederik W. De Klerk, at South Africa's Freedom Day celebration held in Pretoria city center, April 27 1996, to mark the second anniversary of all race elections, which ended whites-only rule. PHOTO | AFP 

As South Africa marks Freedom Day on Saturday, many citizens of Africa’s largest economy are likely to spend the day described by one politician as the "most important secular public holiday" doing more soul searching than celebrating.

Freedom Day marks the first post-apartheid elections held on April 27, 1994 and offers an opportunity to celebrate “the transition we underwent from a racially segregated society to an inclusive and non-racial democracy," according to Mr James Selfe, the chairman of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) federal executive.

However, 19 years down the road, the tone seems to be changing as many South Africans assess the performance of the African National Congress (ANC) government against the promises made by the party under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, the country’s first democratically elected president.

Ahead of the celebrations, the reflective tone was set by different organisations on both sides of the political divide, many of who noted that although some gains have been made during the last nearly-two-decade democratic dispensation, a failure of leadership has resulted in a situation where the gap between rich and poor South Africans is growing wider.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), one of the three parties in the tripartite alliance that forms the ANC, said in a statement Friday that there is little doubt that valuable achievements have been recorded by the ruling party since the negotiated settlement of 1994 that paved the way for the first democratic elections.

But it argued that many of the achievements have been dented by the current state of affairs.

"Workers are legally free to organise in unions and bargain collectively and are protected by laws which guarantee minimum employment standards," said a statement signed the organisation’s National Spokesperson, Patrick Craven.

'Caused big protests'

"Several social concessions were also won by the majority, with over 95 per cent of South Africans gaining access to clean water, 77 per cent gaining access to sanitary facilities, an improvement from 55 per cent in 1994 and 77 per cent gaining access to electricity, an increase from 51 per cent in 1994."

It adds: "However, it is also true to say that these social concessions have been to a large extent, undermined by the rising cost of living, the rising unemployment rate and the widening wage gap. This has caused some of the biggest protests, with over 1.3 million workers going on strike yearly and over 40 per cent of municipalities witnessing service delivery protests".

The opposition DA used the run-up to Freedom Day to question the method of voting currently used in the country, where voters cast their ballots for political parties rather than individuals. The parties then decide on the members to fill the respective seats they have won.

A DA statement, signed by Mr Selfe, noted that the voting system has seen many South Africans lose interest in elections and, in the process, has derailed democracy.

Mr Selfe said the number of voters has declined steadily from the 83 per cent of the eligible voters who registered in 1994 to 77 per cent in 2004 to 73 per cent in 2009.

"These figures tell us an inconvenient truth: that fewer and fewer South Africans are engaging in the political system at a national level, and even fewer still are doing so in municipal elections.

'Feel disconnected'

"Why is it, when so many people sacrificed so much for the right to vote, that so few people exercise this precious right?

"The fact is that many South Africans feel disconnected from the politicians whom they elected to serve their interests. We need to ask why this is," he said.

According to Mr Selfe, part of the reason is that very few South Africans know their legislators who represent them in Parliament.

The ruling ANC however cast a more positive light to the day, saying in its own statement that South Africa is a better place today than it was in 1994.

"Our society has been transformed in every sphere with increased education levels, greater access to water, electricity, sanitation and housing. Moving from an extremely low base, the senior certificate rate is at its highest at 73.9 per cent in an inclusive education system," said National Spokesman Jackson Mthembu.

"The number of graduates has doubled since 1994, more than 3.1 million houses have been built and more than 15.1 million people have benefited as a result of our comprehensive Anti-Poverty Initiatives which have sought to expand the social security network through amongst others grants and labour-intensive public works programmes. We have turned the corner in the fight against HIV and Aids,” said the statement.

The ANC acknowledged that it was struggling to find employment for its citizens but argued that the "fight against joblessness and unemployment continues" guided by the country’s national development plan, which was launched in August 2012 and aims to reduce poverty and inequality by 2030.

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