The freedom we enjoy today was built on sacrifice demanded by the oppressed

27 April 2013

Life for the majority of our people under colonisation and apartheid was brutal and unimaginable. To some, life then was not worth living; it is against this background that they chose to rise up against the then unjust system rather than to accept the status quo. They saw themselves as part of an oppressed collective who had a moral obligation to act because in the famous words of Martin Luther King Jr: “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”

They could have chosen to remain silent in the face of rampant discrimination, but they did not. The status quo that denied them access to public parks and restaurants, and forced them to attend certain schools was unjust and had to be defeated. They were no longer willing to walk past signs on buildings which read: “These public premises and the amenities thereof have been reserved for the exclusive use of white persons.”

To defeat the evil apartheid system required sacrifice. History had taught the majority of South Africans that they had to fight for freedom because ’it is never voluntarily given by the oppressor’. To be a freedom fighter at the time you had to be courageous because you could be severely punished and even killed by the apartheid government. However, noticeably upset about the plight of black people and deep commitment to freedom and justice, they chose to fight the system even if it meant being killed or jailed. They believed that they would be better off dead or jailed rather than to submit to the systematic violation of their human rights.

Activist Solomon Mahlangu who through his death overwhelmingly raised awareness on the injustices of the apartheid government prophetised in hislast words: “My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom. Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight.”

In a similar vein, former President Nelson Mandela in his famous Rivonia trial speech proclaimed: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Steve Biko, Robert Sobukwe and Tsietsi Mashinini are some of the few leaders who made sacrifices so that we can enjoy our freedom today.

The apartheid government consciously abused and ignored the universal human rights recognised, promoted and respected by the United Nations (UN). It gave the majority of our people inferior education, did not allow them to practice their cultural traditions and honour their heritage. Black people were excluded from decision making and never had the opportunity to participate in political and social institutions to shape decisions which affect their lives.

In addition, black people were subjected to high levels of extraordinary physical and psychological violence with the sole aim to control and exploit them. Freedom Month offers us the opportunity to commemorate those who made extreme sacrifices and dedicated their lives so that all of us can live in a free and democratic South Africa.

On Freedom Day, 27 April, President Jacob Zuma will bestow national orders on South African citizens and eminent foreign nationals who have played a key role in South Africa. These orders include: the Order of Mendi for Bravery, the Order of Ikhamanga, the Order of the Baobab, the Order of Luthuli, the Order of Mapungubwe and the Order or Companions of OR Tambo.

2013 Freedom Day and Month is of special significance as we prepare to celebrate 20 years of democracy. We are indeed a country that is better off since our first democratic elections. We can now proudly claim that millions of people have access to water, electricity, sanitation and housing. We are nevertheless mindful that more needs to be done to ensure all South Africans enjoy the same access to these basic services.

Looking back on our past and the strides we have made we must also bear in mind what will guide us to reach the goals we have set for our country. The National Development Plan (NDP) is our roadmap, the plan outlines the type of society we are striving for in 2030, where no one is hungry, where everyone is able to go to school and further their studies if they wish, where work is available, where everyone is making a contribution because he or she has been provided with what is required to reach their full potential.

However, Government cannot build such a society by itself. The involvement of all South Africans is critical to ensuring the successful implementation of the NDP. We must know our rights and responsibilities and actively participate in building this country. Government calls on everyone to join in celebrating national Freedom Day at both Freedom Park and the Union Buildings.

Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS)