Special anniversaries are good opportunities to reflect on what has changed, celebrate the positive and learn lessons from the negative, take stock of what still needs to change and make a renewed commitment to ideals which might be long forgotten.
For instance, the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Charter, supposed to have been celebrated last year, could have been used to mobilise South Africans around the vision contained in what remains a hugely significant document in our history. It could have been an opportunity to encourage all South Africans to assume responsibility for taking our country forward.
Instead, apart from in one or two political speeches, one hardly heard about this anniversary.
It was an opportunity lost.
Another was a chance to celebrate the many anniversaries associated with 1985, a watershed year in the struggle. The year was marked by almost daily protests and a desperate declaration of a state of emergency by the apartheid government, resulting in mass detentions and bannings. In many ways, 1985 marked the beginning of the end of legalised apartheid.
This year we and especially the government, will have at least three more anniversaries that should be used in the manner for which they were intended.
February 11 is the 50th anniversary of the day when District Six was declared a white group area, leading – two years later – to the forced removal of thousands of residents from Cape Town.
On June 16, it will be the 40th anniversary of the Soweto uprising, which brought students – and particularly high school pupils – to the forefront of the liberation struggle for the first time.
And, on August 9, it will be 60 years since the march by thousands of women on the Union Buildings in Pretoria. That protest was against the pass laws but contained much broader demands related to the liberation of women.
It will be interesting to see how the government and the ruling party will reflect on these three anniversaries in a year when they will try to focus on the local government election, but will probably be distracted by a continuation of student protests that marked last year.
Together, these anniversaries represent opportunities to focus on some key issues, including education, language, housing and land restitution, urbanisation and gender inequality.
I would not be surprised if all three are mentioned in the president’s State of the Nation Address at the beginning of February, but there is a need for more than a mention.
This is especially so in the case of District Six. The ways all three spheres of government have handled the District Six restitution process has been nothing short of disgusting. That most of the land still stands empty more than 20 years into our democracy serves not only as a reminder of one of the great apartheid atrocities against the majority population in Cape Town, but also as an indication of the politics which have been allowed to engulf the restitution process.
I know of many people who have been patiently waiting to move back to District Six – as they have been promised many times over the past 20 years – only to be sold new excuses every time they attend meetings called by officials. Many fromer residents are in their eighties and nineties and would love to spend their final years close to where they grew up and had their families.
The 50th anniversary of the declaration of District Six as a white group area presents the government with an opportunity to show intent with regards to the restitution process and the best way to show that is by building some, no, many houses.
The pass laws were apartheid’s weird way of attempting to deal with urbanisation. The apartheid government tried to use pass laws to keep Africans out of cities – except as cheap labour – confining them to rural homelands.
The 60th anniversary of the women’s march provides an opportunity to focus on an issue with which government is still grappling: how to retain people in rural areas. This is something that is never easy to deal with as people will always flock to where there are opportunities usually absent in the rural areas.
Creating opportunities in rural areas requires huge investment and, in a country such as ours with so many conflicting demands on the fiscus, this does not always feature high on the agenda.
Women were particularly hard hit by apartheid pass laws because, while their men were working in the cities, the women were left behind to look after families. For many women, this situation remains unchanged.
There is a need to examine gender issues in our society, which is becoming more and more conservative. Part of conservatism, in my experience, is assigning certain pre-determined roles especially to women. Patriarchy is very much a part of the conservatism that is becoming more pervasive in South Africa, maybe in the world.
Hopefully, this year August 9 will be more than a public holiday when women are supposed to be pampered with manicures, Champagne breakfasts and retail specials. Hopefully, we will be able to seriously reflect on things still impeding the proper contribution and emancipation of women.
Education is bound to feature high on the national agenda once again this year, especially with student protesters having drawn first blood in the form of achieving the removal of certain offensive statues on campuses and freeze on fee increases.
However, the battle on both fronts is far from over and will probably dominate much of the political landscape this year. Further student protests on campuses throughout the country will undoubtedly test the tolerance levels of the government and police.
Hopefully there is a national plan to handle protests and that any plan is based on level-headedness and maturity. One also hopes students are aware it is going to be difficult to secure free education or even another zero percent increase for next year.
Reflecting on the 40th anniversary of the protests which began in Soweto in June 1976, it is also important to consider subsequent protests that engulfed our country, including this province.
For the Western Cape, the 1976 protests laid the basis for the many student-led protests of the 1980s. The Soweto uprising anniversary will also provide an opportunity for a long overdue discussion on language, but this needs to occur in the context of a changing global environment.
Should our focus continue to be promoting – even though unequally – our 11 official languages, or should we be looking at creating global citizens by focusing on language spoken in more populous global markets?
All of this might be too much to be in a year when the government’s main job is going to be stabilising our economy.
Perceptions (right or wrong) of corruption and of comrades feeding at the public trough are not helpful in regaining the confidence not only of the financial markets, but also of the people of South Africa.
In many ways, this is going to be a watershed year for South Africa. We will be faced with many choices, including whether to pursue nuclear power and what should be done with failing state-owned entities.
Here’s hoping those who think they have power (the government) make the correct decisions and those with real power (the electorate) continue to hold them to account.
(First published in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 2 January 2016)