Freedom Day is an annual celebration of South Africa’s first non-racial democratic elections of 1994. Peace, unity, the preservation and the restoration of human dignity hallmarks Freedom Day celebrations on the 27th of April of each year.
The road to democracy was a long and difficult one. Since the arrival of the White man at the Cape in 1652, the indigenous peoples of South Africa came under White control and domination. Soon all peoples of colour were denied the vote and hence a say in the running of the country. South Africa was never truly independent nor democratic. The exclusion of the majority of South Africans from political power was at the centre of the liberation struggle and resistance to white minority rule.
Despite much opposition to White rule to halt white encroachment on black land in South Africa, blacks were systematically herded into restricted areas and homelands and their rights to equal opportunity denied.
With the formation of the South African Native National Congress (which later became the African National Congress (ANC)) in 1912, the resistance movement became formalised. The ANC strived to improve the conditions of the blacks. Its task became more difficult after the Nationalist Party victory of 1948 – when the grand machinery of Apartheid was put into motion and became law. Each race was given different privileges, some more and others less.
Nevertheless, the ANC and its allies continued to seek the freedom of all its peoples and continued to challenge the unjust apartheid laws. When The Congress of the People (held in Kliptown in 1955), adopted the Freedom Charter, the blue-print for a democratic South Africa was laid. The Charter affirmed ‘that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no Government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people’.
In 1961 South Africa became a Republic and the 31st of May was declared a national holiday (Republic Day) by the National Party, yet it was never celebrated by all South Africans. The Umkonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC was formed during this period as a means of armed resistance. Many of the leaders were banned , imprisoned and tortured.
Meeting to launch the Defiance Campaign
After 1976 the liberation struggle gained momentum. The Soweto Uprising of 1976 saw increased militancy. Trade Union movements started to revive and assert the rights of workers. Hundreds of residents’ associations, sports, student, women’s and religious organisations joined the resistance struggle. The Church could no longer stand by silently and added its voice to the liberation struggle.
In 1984, the Government introduced the Tri-cameral parliament, giving Coloureds and Indians the right to vote. The Blacks, who were in the majority, were excluded from this formula. The United Democratic Front (UDF), launched in 1983, brought over 600 organisations together to demand the scrapping of the Tri-cameral parliament. In 1985 the Government declared a State of Emergency in an attempt to suppress the freedom movement.
By 1988 a stalemate had been reached. The Government began looking for a way out and as a result started negotiations with the ANC leadership. The ANC, South African Communist Party (SACP), Pan African Congress (PAC) and other organisations were unbanned on 2 February 1990. A non-racial constitution was eventually agreed upon and adopted in 1993. The new Constitution came into effect on 27 April 1994, the day the nation cast its vote in the first democratic election in the country. The ANC was voted into power and Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the President of South Africa on 10 May.
Significance of Freedom Day
Today, our country celebrates Freedom Day to mark the liberation of our country and its people from a long period of colonialism and white minority domination – which means that we no longer have the situation in which political power is enjoyed and exercised by a minority of our population, to the exclusion of the majority. Freedom Day is not an African National Congress day, but a day for all South Africans. When South Africa was liberated both the oppressor and oppressed were liberated. We pledge “Never again would a minority government impose itself on the majority”.
South Africans are “One people with one destiny”. It is therefore imperative for South Africans of diverse political and economic backgrounds to work towards a common objective. On Freedom Day we celebrate the relentless efforts of those who fought for liberation, of the many men and women who took up arms and courted imprisonment, bannings and torture on behalf of the oppressed masses.
However “Are we really free when our people remain poor, when there is mass unemployment, unwarranted violence and crime”? Freedom should mean emancipation from poverty, unemployment, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination- but poverty continues to exist, with black people, women, children, the disabled and the elderly. “We need to continue to work to eradicate poverty, racial inequalities and socio-economic disparities,” Freedom Day means something very valuable, the necessary condition for us to achieve the vital and fundamental objective of a better life for all.
On Freedom Day, we commit ourselves to ensuring the defence of the sacred freedoms that we had won as a result of a long, difficult and costly struggle. We remind ourselves that the guarantee of these freedoms requires permanent vigilance. It is our pledge to devote ourselves to continue to work to wipe out the legacy of racism in our country. We need to ensure that all our people enjoy these freedoms not merely as theoretical rights but they must form the daily life experience of all South Africans.