No Jewish person will ever forget the pain and devastation inflicted on millions of their compatriots during the holocaust. For thousands of residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the scars inflicted by the atomic bombs will never heal. These events happened over 67 years ago but the anguish and raw emotions still linger. Many South Africans still feel the hurt and loss which resulted from wars, conflict and oppression over the centuries.
Although these events happened many years ago they will never be forgotten, and they still affect and impact life today. In 1994 the new South Africa emerged after hundreds of years of systematic oppression of the black majority. Nineteen years later, South Africa is indeed a very different country imbued with the values of equality and freedom, which are at the heart of our democracy.
The South Africa we all enjoy today was made possible by the sacrifices of thousands of patriots. It took extraordinary courage for ordinary men and women from all races and all walks of life to stand up and confront the evil apartheid government.
Undoubtedly we have come a very long way in a short space of time; however one cannot erase hundreds of years of oppression overnight. Sadly there are people who seem to have forgotten how evil and immoral the apartheid system was. They are the people who callously say ’apartheid is dead, it’s time to move on‘.
Life in apartheid South Africa was a far cry from life as we know it today. Our current freedoms that many may take for granted were unheard of. There was no freedom of speech, no freedom of association or movement.
We defeated apartheid in 1994, but its haunting legacy still lingers today. The oppression of black people began almost as soon as white settlers set foot in South Africa. Discrimination became the norm in the early 1800’s when Pass documents were used to restrict the movement of non-European South Africans.
The madness was further entrenched with promulgation of the 1913 Natives Land Act that saw thousands of black families forcibly removed from their land. This one act tore entire families apart as people were forcibly moved to homelands and townships.
It is hard to imagine how helpless and utterly devastated people must have felt on the morning of 20 June 1913. Their land and homes had been taken from them, their futures were uncertain, they were lost.
However, the oppression did not stop there, in 1948 the newly elected National Party set about entrenching apartheid. Their ‘grand design’ envisaged different people living in different areas according to their race.
They were systematic in their approach, passing law after law intended to restrict the freedoms and aspirations of black people. The Population Registration Act of 1950 formalised racial classification and introduced an identity card for all persons over the age of eighteen, specifying their racial group.
The Group Areas Act of 1950 decreed that only people of the same race could live side by side. The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 prohibited marriage between persons of different races.
By passing these laws the apartheid government was slowly stripping away every ounce of dignity and humanity of black people. Under the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953, municipal grounds could be reserved for a particular race, creating, among other things, separate beaches, buses, hospitals, schools and universities. Signboards such as ‘whites only’ applied to public areas, even including park benches.
In the same year education was segregated by means of the 1953 Bantu Education Act, which crafted a separate system of education for African students and was designed to prepare black people for lives as a labouring class.
By passing such legislation the apartheid government sought to break the resilience and the spirit of millions of South Africans who yearned for freedom. However, apartheid was untenable; the flame of freedom, liberty and justice would not be extinguished.
A movement of patriots had emerged, they fought against the regime in different ways but were all bound by a common quest. It is these brave and self-sacrificing people that we must remember as we celebrate Freedom Month and Freedom Day.
Their sacrifices must never be forgotten, their selfless dedication brought about the country we live in today. Speaking at the launch of Freedom Month, President Jacob Zuma once again emphasised the significance of this month. “April is the month of freedom. It is the month during which South Africans elevated reconciliation and forgiveness, and we decided to emphasise our unity in diversity and minimise that which divides us.”
That we have largely been able to overcome what divides us bears testimony to the enduring spirit of freedom that lives on in all of us today.
The wise words of OR Tambo still ring true today. "We seek to create a united Democratic and non-racial society. We have a vision of South Africa in which black and white shall live and work together as equals in conditions of peace and prosperity.”
It is incumbent on this generation to carry the torch of freedom now. The echoes of leaders and patriots from our past must never be allowed to fade. We must entrench a new legacy built on the solid foundation they have set, we dare not fail.
Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS)