18 May 2024

Thirty Years

Categories: Life
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He that would make his own liberty secure,
must guard even his enemy from oppression;
for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.
– Thomas Paine –

We are having elections in about two weeks’ time here and this time we mark thirty years since that first democratic election in 1994. There has been so much looking back at the months and even years preceding that. It struck me so how much and how quickly one forgets! All too soon it begins to feel as if this is the way it always was. And in some ways that is good, moving on, embracing how it is now but it is salutary, necessary, I think, to recall what those times were like. You know they say the past is another country, it sometimes feels like for us here, the past is another planet!

I suddenly remembered the disbelief, the excitement when Nelson Mandela finally walked into the sunlight. He was this almost mythical figure by then, it was forbidden to show or have images of him. He must be one of the very very few whose actual presence, actual being was so much better, so much more impressive than the idea of him. I lived in the locust years of Verwoerd, Vorster and Botha but I was here also when Mandela walked into freedom.

I remember the long process of creating the framework of how this would all be set up, the writing of the constitution, the agreement on how that first government would be shaped. And that too was rocked by violence and upheaval. Far right groups stormed the building where the negotiations were taking place with armed vehicles, crashing through the glass doors!

I listened in particular to how journalists remembered those days in the lead up the election. We did not have anything approaching press freedom. I remember how an anti-government newspaper’s offices were bombed by government operatives under apartheid. Listened to a journalist tell of the violence, the killing of a well-known journalist near Joburg, of the bombs near the airport, of how she came home to Cape Town to vote for the very first time with her mom and dad. Let me say that again: they were voting for the VERY first time. Because previously these adults were not allowed to vote in their own country.

Inauguration 1994

credit: Gidele Wulfsohn / african.pictures

Someone spoke the other day of how moved he had felt when he saw the new flag, the proper South African flag being flown at Mandela’s inauguration. Took us right back too! My husband and I remembered how it felt when we saw the generals of the old regime stand behind the new black president. Tears and joy. And I think we, and the world have forgotten that the president of the apartheid government became the vice president of the new South Africa. There was so much compromise, maybe too much on the side of the Mandela government but oh, what might the alternative have been!

Inauguration Mandela

credit: We, the People SA

That has of course been much on my mind too in recent times. I remember Yasser Arafat attending that inauguration in 1994. Nelson Mandela said: Palestine is the greatest moral issue of our time. Mandela said: Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to
live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
– Nelson Mandela –

Thirty years and counting and where are we now? I read the Freedom charter and felt such tender respect for all the many people across the country who contributed. It highlights how far we have missed the mark, how very great the shortfall is. But this is the vision, this is the dream that the struggle was built on, and it must be what we keep aiming for.

The Freedom Charter of 1955
We, the people of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know:

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.

The people shall govern.

All national groups shall have equal rights.

The people shall share in the nation’s wealth.

The land shall be shared among those who work it.

All shall be equal before the law.

All shall enjoy equal human rights.

There shall be work and security for all.

There shall be houses, security and comfort.

There shall be peace and friendship.

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