Freedom Day – 27 April 2018: From theoretical to practical freedom by Marius Meyer

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In theory, South Africans achieved Freedom on 27 April 1994 when our first democratic election was held. Since then we have celebrated Freedom Day every year. The world praised South Africa for achieving freedom in such a peaceful manner and this success story was often referred to as the “miracle of the rainbow nation” with one of the best Constitutions in the world.

However, 24 years later it is now clear that the majority of South Africans only achieved freedom in theory.  Yes, black South Africans have freedom – they can go to schools of their choice, apply for all types of jobs, buy houses wherever they want, and so forth. The “freedoms” are there, at least on paper. But as we have seen time and time again, while human rights may be in place in principle, it is more difficult to realise in practice.  For instance, in theory a black South African family can buy a house anywhere, but if they can’t afford to buy a house in a more expensive neighbourhood, remaining in the township may be the only viable option over the short and medium term, and for many the only option over the long term.  Thus, while the theoretical discourse is freedom, the perpetuation of poverty, unemployment and inequality is the practical reality for most black South Africans.

The question arises: Was 27 April 1994 only freedom in theory, while practical freedom remains an elusive dream for most South Africans?  When looking at recent realities and events, it is evident that only theoretical freedom has been achieved for many.  The realities below paint a picture of a country in need of practical freedom:

  • We have one of the highest unemployment rates in the world (27%) and one of the highest youth unemployment (50%+), ironically almost all of these young unemployed were born since 1994 in the post-apartheid era.
  • Again the World Bank confirmed that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world with the highest gap between the rich and the poor.
  • While the black middle class is growing, and despite the good intentions of the Employment Equity Act, the rate of transformation in the private sector in particular is too slow.
  • The poor education provided in the majority of schools perpetuates current inequalities.
  • Poor service delivery by municipalities, provincial and other government departments affect the poorest of the poor more severely than the privileged sectors of society.

I can go on and on and quote statistics building on the above five points. But rather, let us shift our thinking and energy from statistics (the theory) to actions (practice).  And yes, while fraud, corruption, under-resourced schools and white privilege all exacerbate the current problems, today I want to add my voice to the voiceless and ask for the four major stakeholders in society to step up in accelerating all efforts in achieving real, meaningful and sustainable freedom for all:

  1. Government and its institutions must create an environment for growth, build a capable state and execute all its programmes more effectively.
  2. Business must come to the party in creating freedom in the workplace and society at large with meaningful programmes delivering impact;
  3. Labour needs to ensure that its unique role is leveraged in repositioning labour as a powerful force in creating a more productive and equal society;
  4. Civil society has an important role in mobilising citizens in organised and co-ordinated projects advancing freedom and equality in society at large.

While it is indeed sad that the National Development Plan (NDP) has been developed quite some time ago, we have to face reality again by admitting that there is nothing wrong with our theory (the NDP), but we again failed in practice, i.e. its execution.  All four of the above institutions have achieved major successes, albeit in the form of pockets of excellence.  Now is the time to replicate these pockets of excellence into well-managed projects that deliver impact.  It will only happen if we can execute better, in other words converting our great theories into practice with practical actions making a difference to society. It is my hope and dream that President Ramaphosa’s vision as encapsulated in his “new dawn,” and “send me” slogans will be converted to clear practical actions making a difference. Let us all work together in converting our beautiful theories into practice and advance real freedom for all in the workplace and society at large.

Marius Meyer is CEO of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP)