Khadija Patel: Reflections on 20 years

Driving through Sophiatown on Saturday with family visiting from England, I explained the history of this part of Johannesburg. But the cold facts don't quite convey the sense of loss that permeates places like these. It is a loss that has not quite been filled by twenty years of democracy. But it is also a loss that I could not altogether convey.

Much like my memory of the formal structures of apartheid, my understanding of what Sophiatown was like has been constructed through literature and anecdotes, the experience of others.

"But now are there places in Johannesburg where black people and white people live together?" asked my cousin.

I stayed silent for a few seconds. This wasn't my cousin's first trip to South Africa. Was the answer to her question not immediately obvious?

Last week, Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile launched Freedom Month, commemorating twenty years of democracy in South Africa. For the month of April, we're being encouraged to celebrate democracy and freedom from apartheid much like we celebrate our national sports teams.

And it won't be confined to "Freedom Month" either.

According to news reports, Mashatile said during the course of the year all national holidays will be used to reflect on the road travelled since the inception of democracy and to promote social cohesion, nation building and reconciliation.

The emphasis on the celebrations of 20 years of democracy appears to make obvious what South Africa's immediate reality does not, it seeks to find an ostensible articulation of these last twenty years, it seeks to bring out to the streets, the happily ever after of the great story of South Africa's transition from colonialism and apartheid to a free land, to democracy, to the South Africa we know today.

But as we seek this articulation of what it means to be South Africans, it is crucial that we understand how South Africa relates to the rest of Africa and how South Africa relates to the rest of the world.

Our own celebrations of 20 years of democracy coincides with Rwanda's commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide. The proximity in time and space, of our own happy story, fraught as it was then, and sullied as it is now, to genocide is a reminder that the world does not end at our borders.

Since December, more than 2,000 people have been killed in the Central African Republic (CAR), and more than 800,000 people have been displaced.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon this weekend said the world must "do more and act more quickly" to prevent the worst before it happens in CAR. And yet does South Africa, this South Africa that we are celebrating, see what is happening in CAR at all?

With much of our attention now divided between Oscar Pistorius and the vagaries of election season, 20 years as a free people should afford us the opportunity to forge a sense of who we are in relation to the rest of the world, at least in relation to the rest of Africa.

Some interest was piqued over the weekend by reports that Nigeria has indeed outstripped South Africa as the continent's largest economy. But our relation to the rest of the continent does not lie entirely in our asserting a long-held sense of superiority over other African states. Relating to the rest of the continent means, at the very least, showing as much interest in what happens to other African states as we exhibit in ourselves.

Khadija Patel is a writing fellow at the University of Witwatersrand's Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser).