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  • Lynnda Wardle

Incomplete Freedoms

Updated: May 4

Freedom Day, Joburg 27th April 2024

I am in South Africa for the 30-year anniversary of the first democratic elections which were held on the 27th of April 1994. I was living in Johannesburg at the time, and days before the election I started making a quilt from scraps of material I bought at a remnants shop. The voting lasted four days with all the drama of the nineteen million voters, many who had never voted before, standing in long queues, some sleeping at polling stations, picnicking in line. The quilt grew larger. Then the long wait as the ballot boxes were collected from rural areas and the votes painstakingly counted and disputes dealt with. The quilt grew larger still. Eventually, many days after the actual polling, the results were announced. The ANC had won. It felt like something miraculous had been achieved (and I completed my quilt).

That day is commemorated now as Freedom Day and even at the bushveld lodge we are staying at there is a subdued air of celebration. My mother buys me a Mail & Guardian so that I can catch up on the political news of this auspicious day. The reports are mixed. So many speak of dashed hopes: continued educational inequalities and rising unemployment especially amongst young black people and black women. There is talk of a loss of hope in a future that had seemed so bright three decades ago and how difficult it is for most ordinary people to get work, find suitable housing, feed their families and access decent, affordable education for their children.

Bubbling under these economic and political woes is the truth of the real movers and shakers of the economy: the financial-mining conglomerates. The banking sector in South Africa is one of the most advanced in the world, and extremely profitable. Driving past the Johannesburg headquarters of Anglo-American /De Beers (the mining and diamond multinationals that are at the heart of South Africa’s economy) the building’s black mirrored façade is huge and uninviting. There is no way to see inside. We can see you and you can’t see us, it seems to say. A monolithic edifice of impenetrable black glass. And then there is the issue of the financial elites who do not keep their money in South Africa or pay their taxes here. (Anglo American moved its main headquarters to London). The United Nations Convention on Trade and Development estimated last year that South Africa is losing R62 billion per year to illicit financial flows. This means corporations are illegally leaching money out of the country – money that should be used to build schools, boost unemployment schemes, rebuild creaking infrastructure, fund community initiatives. When will they be called to account?

And because everything is linked, and because one can’t separate economic inequity from climate degradation, these multinationals are also responsible for the worst examples of pollution in the country. The same newspaper reports the terrifying rise of toxic acidic mine water across the East Rand of Gauteng Province, the result of three pumps tasked with the safe ‘scaling’ of the poison water, being shut down. Acidic sludge is polluting large areas of groundwater and no-one is being held responsible.

My experience of being back in South Africa is that it is still a deeply racially divided and misogynist society. Last night at dinner, his voice braying louder than all the others in the dining area, a white man laments his ‘white trauma’. Really? Class divisions still exist, and racism is still alive and well although a little more ‘underground’ than it used to be. I have heard whites continue the old racist tropes without any sense of abashment. They will say these things to me because I am white, and they assume therefore I am sympathetic. Many of the old inequalities still exist, and some are deeper than ever. In the Mail & Guardian I am reading, an EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters) official is ordered by the court to apologise for the use of the derogatory term ‘coolie’ and admit it as hate speech. Although the court upholds this position, the official still stringently denies that the use of this term was hate speech. Again, really?

Despite this, Freedom Day is a joyous occasion. Apartheid is no longer enshrined here by law. South Africa has an exemplary constitution and an admirable legal system. People are its greatest resource: friendly, hopeful, creative, forgiving and wise. Everywhere I go, there is a sense of goodwill. That quilt I made 30 years ago, now seems symbolic in the stitching together of a nation, all its cultures and differences sewn together in hope.

South Africa takes its place internationally too, for example, in challenging Israel on their genocide in Gaza. Interestingly, there is almost no mention in this newspaper I am reading about the war on Gaza, that apartheid state still operating so viciously in the Middle East. The only two mentions are in the arts pages: South African artists collaborate on an album in support of Palestine (Piercing the Silence) and a short interview with Palestinian director Rashid Masharawi who wants to portray a different view of Gaza in film. Art, as always, keeps the flames of hope alive.

I am reminded of Mandela’s words in 1997, in a speech on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People

"We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians."

So, while we celebrate Freedom Day in South Africa and acknowledge the long struggle that brought it about, we need to acknowledge that guarding freedom is a constant fight; freedom is a tender plant. And yes, Mandela was right. There can be no freedom until Palestine is free. While apartheid is still alive and genocide being perpetrated in its advancement, we must acknowledge that the fight is far from over.  


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