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Beyond the Holiday: The Spirit of Freedom Day in South African Today

11 Days ahead of the next big elections, 3 activists and community leaders reflect on the spirit of 1994 and the reality of Freedom Day in 2019

Saturday 27 April is Freedom Day in South Africa. It’s a public holiday commemorating our country’s first free and fair democratic national elections held in 1994. Do you remember 1994?

“Our people were excited and hopeful for a bright and better future for all citizens,” recalls Omar Ryklief, a neighbourhood watch and community safety initiative chairman in Grassy Park. For the first time in SA’s history, just under 20 million people lined up in queues to cast their vote in 1994 (compared to the mere three million that voted in 1989). “Some queues stretched for kilometres,” Associated Press photographer Denis Farrell says in a video on the journalist’s perspective of the elections.

WATCH: JOURNALISTS REFLECT ON THE 1994 ELECTIONS

 

“When I hear those who experienced the 1994 elections reflect, they speak of a moment of hope, triumph and the beginning of a new dawn. Something they and many generations before them had hoped and sometimes died for,” says Wandile Ngcaweni, a born-free (born in 1994), junior researcher at the independent Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection and editor of the #FeesMustFall-based book We are no Longer at Ease.

Now, 25 years later, Freedom Day comes just 11 days before our next big general elections (8 May 2019). So it feels almost impossible to talk about Freedom Day without taking into account the upcoming SA general elections.

We spoke to some South Africans about the spirit and promise of the 1994 elections, compared to where we are today.

A QUESTION OF CHANGE
“1994 was filled with anticipation of huge change. Positive change. The kind of change that was supposed to have dramatically altered every South African’s life,” says actress, singer and director Kgomotso Matsunyane. “But 25 years later, the ‘big change’ is questionable. The majority of people in our country are still the poorest and least educated while the minority continue to hold economic power.”

And that has a dramatic effect on how people think about the upcoming elections, says Ryklief. “The momentum of 1994 is in contrast to what many people feel about the 2019 elections, because people have learnt not to expect too many major changes anymore. Our people are frustrated because the cost of living has become too high, and our neighbourhoods are unsafe, as crime has become the order of the day.”

But, Ngcaweni reminds us, South Africans can’t afford to merely blame our leadership for not always delivering on the promises of 1994. “Several people who were there in 1994 have said to me that they feel they did not put in the hard work of holding political figures and parties to account. And we cannot simply trust politicians and the elite minority to have our best interests in mind. We, the citizens, must hold all those occupying leadership positions (across sectors) to account.”

A RECORD-BREAKING ELECTION YEAR
Of course, there are some things that are very different today than they were in 1994. For one thing, the Independent Electoral Commission says that a record number of over 26 million voters have registered to vote on 8 May. And there are also a record number of parties contesting in 2019.

“I’m really interested in the upcoming elections because, remember, we didn’t have the EFF, ATM, COPE and other smaller parties 25 years ago,” says Matsunyane. “And those kinds of parties can now potentially represent the African person outside of the parties that enjoyed a majority vote for reasons that were obvious in the past, but might not be so obvious anymore.”

IF YOU WERE RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT
So there is always hope. And things can be very different, if we want them to be.

“If I were running for president, I would ask people to explore how potentially significant it would be to have a female leader and not have to wait another 25 years for everyone to be entirely convinced that younger, different methods of leadership are necessary,” says Matsunyane.

“If I were president, the first thing I’d do would be to return dignity to the downtrodden by declaring the time for talking and ‘forgiving the past’ over. It’s now time to do. To realise the promise of 1994,” says Ngcaweni.

And that means seriously dealing with existing and future corruption, according to Ryklief. It requires fixing the education system and changing laws around land and economy, says Matsunyane. And it means “giving back what belongs to the people”, according to Ngcaweni.

What’s your dream for South Africa this Freedom Day?

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Discover exciting things to do Freedom Day and find your voting station and see how to double check that you’re registered for 8 May’s South African general elections.

Coming up, here’s what to expect on public holiday, Workers Day.

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