If you ask a room full of people what freedom means to them, it is likely that all will give a different answer. The essence of freedom is hard to define and tends to differ from person to person. For some, freedom is defined by respect for their inherent human dignity, while others point to freedom of speech.
For hundreds of years the majority of South Africans could only dream of freedom. Under colonialism, apartheid and white rule, millions were denied even the most basic of freedoms.
Today every citizen is free to choose and is secure in the knowledge that their individual freedom is protected by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Every year this month, we commemorate the historic occasion when our nation took the first steps towards freedom. The first democratic elections held on 27 April 1994, marked the dawn of a new society in which the rights and dignity of all were paramount.
This year’s commemoration of Freedom Month will also see the nation celebrate 20 Years of Freedom. This significant milestone allows us to reflect on the journey from apartheid to democracy.
Few would dispute that one of the most enduring aspects of our freedom is the right to vote. This most basic freedom was denied to the majority under apartheid, but has now come to symbolise our freedom and the society we are building. On 7 May, citizens will vote in the fifth democratic election since 1994 to elect pubic representatives of their choice.
The period leading to the election is always characterised by robust debate by media, civil society and political parties. This election cycle has been no different and the airwaves, newspapers and online discussions have been dominated by deliberation on the progress made and the gaps that remain.
In the past, debates such as these were unthinkable. Under apartheid there was no freedom of speech, no free media and those who spoke out against the apartheid government were routinely punished.
Today freedom of expression, freedom of the press and other media are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Healthy debate is an integral part of our functioning democracy, along with the right to privacy, freedom of religion, belief and opinion.
In fact, the right to choose which the majority was denied for so long has come to define the new society we are building. Under apartheid, the majority were denied the right to choose, and freedom of movement and association. They were forced to live in racially divided communities which served to enforce a culture of oppression.
In the 1800’s, discrimination became the norm. Pass documents were used to restrict the movement of black citizens. The promulgation of the 1913 Natives Land Act saw people removed from their land and families torn apart.
The government has moved decisively to change the legacy of apartheid spatial planning which sought to divide and oppress the majority. The plethora of new integrated communities across the nation is tangible evidence of this freedom. Never again will it be that people are separated by race or confined to poorly serviced homelands and townships.
Much has changed, but more must still be done. President Jacob Zuma recently unveiled the Twenty Year Review, South Africa 1994 – 2014. It is an honest and frank appraisal of the successes, shortcomings and challenges that remain.
We must be forever cognisant that freedom without socio-economic progress is hollow. During his address on National Human Rights Day, the President spoke passionately about the need to work harder to further improve the quality of life.
“We want every household to have water, electricity, access to decent schools, hospitals or clinics and recreational facilities.”
He added: “We want to build a growing economy which creates jobs. Let us move our country forward, working together as all South Africans.”
Twenty years on, we can proudly declare that we are free. The spirit of freedom is all pervasive in society and runs through our collective veins. However, the freedom we enjoy serve as a catalyst for even greater good. It is up to this generation to work towards a society free from racial, economic and class barriers.
Phumla Williams is acting CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS)