Freedom stumbles in delivering a better life for all

With all the political and economic upheaval of the past few weeks, it is easy to forget that we are celebrating 23 years of our democracy next Thursday. Officially it is called Freedom Day but we have learned over the past 23 years that “freedom” is a bit of a misnomer. Maybe it should have been called Political Freedom Day, because economic freedom is still far from being a reality for most South Africans.

But Freedom Day – to use its official title – is a good time to reflect on how far we have come as a nation and how far we still have to go.

There is no doubt that South Africa is a better place to live in today than it was under apartheid. You cannot compare a system that oppressed the majority of South Africans – often brutally – with one in which we have the freedom to speak our minds, no matter how disgusting our views might be.

We now have different ways of dealing with what could be construed as offensive views, and not just detention without trial or bannings.

Having been the victim of detention without trial and working at publications that were routinely banned, especially as apartheid were sighing its last gasps, I can bear witness to the fact that it is a much better environment in which to work as a journalist and commentator.

The challenges today are different for journalists – nowadays we are challenged by shrinking staff and juniorisation of newsrooms. In some newsrooms, we are also faced with the rapidly disappearing Chinese wall between editorial and advertising, making it sometimes difficult to ascertain what is news and what has been paid for.

Our Constitution guarantees most human rights and our courts have not been shy to perform their duty to hold those in power to account for their abuses. We also have vibrant civil society organisations, many of whom would have been closed by now already under apartheid.

But while rights are good and necessary, they mean very little to people whose lives have not changed in an economic sense since the days of apartheid.

Most South Africans still live in under-resourced townships where there appears to be a different reality and a different set of rules to that which govern the inner-city areas and the suburbs.

I grew up in some of these townships and most of my family still live in them. For many people in these townships, apartheid might as well never have ended.

They still struggle to find decent work, their schools appear to be sausage-making machines that provide a place where you can send your children for 12 years and hope that they come out with a decent education, which often does not happen.

As a result of the bad foundational education, young people struggle when they go to universities – that is if they are lucky to find bursaries to pay for tertiary education.

But most young people who live in these townships end up going to work after spending some time at school. The reality is that most of those who enter the primary school system do not go on to high school and most of those who enter high school, do not complete matric.

In an economy where growth is slow, and where graduates often struggle to find work, imagine how difficult it must be to find work if you did not even complete your primary or high school education. No wonder in many of these townships, you will find hundreds of able-bodied young men standing on street corners, in between badly-build houses, without any hope of ever finding work.

But there are other realities for people who live in the townships, which are often far away from the city centres or industrial areas which means a dependence on reasonably-priced and efficient public transport.

While middle-class people can always use Uber or Taxify if they have a transport problem, poor people are left at the mercy of a Metrorail system that is mostly inefficient, a taxi industry that can politely be described as volatile and a bus industry not immune to untimely and inconvenient work stoppages.

Imagine the impact of the recent bus strike on people who depend on buses to go home over the long weekend to see their families, who they only see at Easter and/or Christmas.

Radical economic transformation, the term that is being used as a vote-catcher by certain people in the ANC ahead of the elective conference in December, means nothing to people on the Cape Flats whose lives have not changed in the past 23 years.

It will only mean something if people see a significant improvement in their lives and those of their families. We can no longer continue to have these different realities in South Africa. The rich cannot sleep easily while the poor go hungry. It is up to those with resources to find ways of making a difference in poor communities. It should not only be up to government to improve the lives of poor people so that they can also celebrate what the rest of us call freedom.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 22 April 2017)