27 April 2021 | Story Prof Sethulego Matebesi | Photo Sonia Small
Prof Matabesi
Prof Sethulego Matebesi is a Senior Lecturer and Academic Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of the Free State.

This year’s Freedom Day marks an important milestone in the history of South Africa. It will be 27 years since the first non-racial elections were held in the country, a figure that equals the number of years Nelson Mandela spent in prison.

If equating Mandela with the freedom we enjoy today is not already disingenuous enough, we sunk even lower by assuming that we are close to achieving the civil liberties he embodied. You do not have to go further than read the daily media headlines to understand the extent of the onslaught on the pillars of democracy. That this onslaught comes from political leaders is one of the main reasons why most South Africans are disillusioned with politics, democracy and social issues.

Anarchy wreaking havoc in weak societies

Sociology taught me about the relevance of institutions to a social structure: they control human conduct by setting up predefined behaviour patterns. For example, throughout history anarchy has wreaked havoc in settings where organisations are weak, fragmented, and the citizenry is inactive. Similarly, while peace, unity, and the preservation and the restoration of human dignity are the hallmarks of Freedom Day celebrations, we have become a nation increasingly influenced by symbolic politics and the politics of offence.

It would be hard to find a better example of a significant threat to the pillars of democracy than the widespread onslaught on the judiciary. At the heart of the broader political, legal, and moral issues confronting SA today is how the right of all to equal respect and equal protection under the law has been compromised. Casting doubt about the independence of the judiciary conceals the motivations that most endanger the principles of freedom and equality.

My stance is not aimed at muting the expression of unpopular opinions – a basic tenet of democracy. However, we need to be mindful of events that have and will become powerfully symbolic in altering the nation’s social fabric.

Freedom under attack by populist politics

Any societal change requires some form of flexibility. No doubt, the first decade of democracy was accompanied by hope and the euphoria of the Rainbow Nation. This period demonstrated how different racial groups could live together in harmony, play together, and attend the same school without being required to forsake values they hold dear. This period was punctured by notions of active citizenship and the promotion of democratic cooperation that is based on the acceptance of universal human rights and the rule of law and values of diversity.

While millions of people elsewhere in the world have been forced to flee hunger, war, terrorism, and emboldened autocrats in their countries of birth, the euphoric wave of the Mandela years has, unwittingly and dramatically, worn off during the past decade in South Africa. This turn of events is linked to populist politics that seriously compromise democratic institutions in the country.

In my opinion, there are no heroes in situations like these.

In a country characterised by rampant corruption, violent crime, gender-based violence, human trafficking, racial intolerance, and teenage drug abuse, are politicians the only ones to be blamed for the threats to democracy?

Conquering immorality and safeguarding our freedom

Despite all the challenges we face as a country, we remain a remarkably resilient nation, as is widely acknowledged. This resilience is echoed by how we have navigated our way around a highly divisive and intolerant society to embrace and celebrate our rich and vibrant cultural heritage.

Nevertheless, we have become complacent. We have been vocal against any narrative aimed at restricting our legal, religious, human, civil, economic and political rights. Yet, partly due to our collective inaction, we have failed to use the means to provide a compelling counter-narrative of resistance to the manipulation of state institutions and broader immorality permeating society. This inaction affects the lives and livelihoods of millions of those who do not have the organisational capacity and means to advocate for the causes that affect them.

Let us use this year’s historic Freedom Day celebrations to demonstrate our firm resolve to protect the critical pillars of democracy from further exploitation. This kind of collective responsibility is what South Africa has always been about. Only when our government at all levels, the private sector, and concerned citizens across the country begin a critical partnership and commitment to maintain our democratic institutions and processes that our past losses as a nation become gains and defeats become triumphs.

* Prof Sethulego Matebesi works on all current affairs such as political and social issues. More specifically, he focuses on social movements and protests, community-mining company conflict, and local municipal governance.

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