Now that the dust has settled on Freedom Day — April 27, the 16th anniversary of the first time all South Africans voted in a democratic election — it is worth reflecting on what it means to be free, what we still need to do to achieve more freedom and what we need to do to protect the freedom we have.

There was a song we used to sing in Hanover Park in 1976 when we were protesting against the imposition of Afrikaans. Yes, the protests were not only restricted to Soweto and many people were killed all over the country, but that’s another story, the rewriting of our history, which I can deal with in another column). The song included the words: “Freedom isn’t free, freedom isn’t free. You’ve got to pay the price, you’ve got to sacrifice, for your liberty.”

We never took much note of the words of freedom songs then, even though we sang along with gusto. I suppose this is probably why today not many people interrogate the words of the “Kill the Boer” song or “Umshini wami” before they sing it. There is a mindlessness that creeps in when one sings these songs, or any songs for that matter.

I have been shocked when I’ve heard four-year-olds sing “I wanna sex you up” or words to that effect and realise that they heard the song on radio and were just singing along. The same could probably be said of adults.

We used to believe that we would have to sacrifice in order to achieve our freedom and many of us were prepared to do so, because we thought that freedom for all our people would be worth the sacrifice of a few.

Now that we have had 16 years of freedom we are realising that freedom has never really been defined and we are asking ourselves whether the sacrifices made by many have been worth it.

So many sacrificed their lives, on both sides of the divide: from Ashley Kriel, Coline Williams, Anton Fransch, Hector Pietersen, Matthew Goniwe, Fort Galata, among many, to the young white men who were conscripted into the apartheid army to fight a war they did not understand or, if they did, they did not support. Many of their bodies came back from Angola in body bags and the media were not allowed to report on their deaths.

What is the definition of freedom? There are basic human values and expectations that we should support and we should demand as the minimum of a free society.

These values include a belief in non-racism and non-sexism, in fact a total disdain for discrimination of any sort so that we can move towards a more tolerant society.

We should also demand a society in which everyone would have equal access to education, justice, decent housing, the economy and job opportunities. Very importantly, we should demand the right to feel safe in our homes and our communities.

Many of these rights are enshrined in the Freedom Charter, the amazing document that was adopted at Kliptown in 1995 and which remains — or should be — a beacon of what we hope to achieve in our country.

The actions of all our politicians and political parties should be judged against their abilities to deliver on these values and expectations. Many times the ANC government has failed to deliver on these values — and that is sad — but I don’t know whether a DA government or any other would do any better.

The task of those of us who operate in civil society should be to remind our political leaders of the need to deliver on these values. We should move away from blind loyalty to any one political party and instead start judging parties on whether they perform, whether they are able to make sure that we are moving towards the kind of freedom we all desire.

I have no problem with supporting the ANC on one issue, the DA on another issue or Cope on something else. After all, this is what freedom means. The freedom to decide who I want to support politically without fear of repercussions.

Having said all of the above, I am not trying to discount the achievements of the past 16 years. We have made amazing progress as a country, but our country still looks too much like the South Africa of old. We still have too much poverty, joblessness, homelessness and crime.

We have a poor majority who are quickly running out of patience. They are still waiting to see the South Africa promised in the Freedom Charter.

My biggest fear is that if we don’t make a commitment to fight for these values and expectations, then we could lose the freedoms we have gained already.

The fight for freedom is an ongoing fight and the sacrifices many have made have not been enough.

The sacrifices today might be different but they are still important. They could include sacrificing part of your earnings to support deserving charities, getting involved in activities in disadvantaged communities, or getting involved in civil society groups that could pressure the government to deliver on values and expectations.

This is the only way we can preserve and build our freedom.

(Originally published in the Cape Argus on Wednesday 5 May 2010 and in the Marketviews May online newsletter)


  • Ryland Fisher is former editor of the Cape Times and author of the book Race. This is his second book, following on Making the Media Work for You, which was published in 2002. He is executive chairperson of the Cape Town Festival, which he initiated while editor of the Cape Times in 1999 as part of the One City Many Cultures project. He received an international media award for this project in New York in October 2006. His personal motto is "bringing people together", which was the theme of One City Many Cultures. It remains the theme of the Cape Town Festival and is the theme of Race. Ryland has worked in and with government, in the media for more than 25 years, in the corporate sector, in NGOs and in academia. Ultimately, however, he describes himself as "just a souped-up writer".


Ryland Fisher

Ryland Fisher is former editor of the Cape Times and author of the book Race. This is his second book, following on Making the Media Work for You, which was published in 2002. He is...

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