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JUDITH FEBRUARY: The triple challenge of Freedom Day this year

As we approach 8 May and our sixth democratic elections, we are a country fractured and unable to reconcile. We are also one wracked with poverty, unemployment and deep inequality, not to mention battling with the ‘9 wasted years’ of Zuma-led corruption and state capture.

This as the number of young people between the ages of 18-19 has fallen by 47% compared to the 2014 elections. Youth apathy towards organised politics is not unique to South Africa, however, but the impact on our politics will be significant.

The ILO has found that South Africa has a youth unemployment rate of 52%, far higher than our SADC neighbours. Stats SA found that in the 25- to 34-year old age group, only one in three South Africans had a job. Much of this has to do with the failure of the post-apartheid education system. And so, the status quo is a rather bleak one.

During the #FeesMustFall protests at universities, we heard a younger generation blame Nelson Mandela for 'selling us out' and the Constitution has become the scapegoat for all that is wrong in our society. That argument often ignores the complexities and historical context of the time, as well as the role those in power play (or fail to play) in implementing the constitutional promise.

Looking back on the imperfections of our transition, the only thing that can be said with certainty is that transitions are imperfect and difficult. South Africa was fortunate to have wise and decisive leadership during those years and an ANC that was clear-minded about its vision of a constitutional democracy. But it also took "the people" to be part of waves of struggle in every sense.

Yet, celebrating 25 years of freedom, we are jaded, we trust our leaders far less than we did in those halcyon days, and at times, we seem rudderless. Deepening levels of inequality have exacerbated race and class cleavages. State capture has led to a mistrust of political leaders.

Is it any wonder that our dialogue is brittle and blame is apportioned readily and angrily? When we disagree, we appear to not be listening; we turn up the volume and out-shout the other. Is apartheid to blame for our current ills, someone asserts, or the corruption prevalent across so much of the government? Perhaps it is all the fault of the liberal media? And so it goes on.

There seems to be no space for middle ground, or for one finding the other, only the anger of exclusion and unfulfilled promises. The South African reality is a nearly 25% unemployment rate and unsustainable levels of inequality.

As a country we clearly underestimated the apartheid legacy and the ability to create a "developmental state", too little emphasis was placed on mobilising citizens' energies for change and short-termism by the government compromised sustained transformation of society. There was an assumption that elected officials and public servants were incorruptible and the unintended consequences of policy choices were not adequately recognised and consensus was often "imposed".

As the National Development Plan (NDP) - that dusty document we seldom refer to anymore - also contends, without a new development trajectory, South Africans will remain unequal, poor and lacking the cohesion necessary to live together peacefully. For we remain stymied by our difference. And violence, whether by state repression at Marikana, xenophobic attacks, or from one citizen to the other (whether on our university campuses or elsewhere), becomes a means of problem solving.

Yet, as we see time and time again, there is something at the heart of society, a resilience that has seen us wrought the impossible despite our differences.

It is that spirit which we evoked in 1994. It will be almost impossible to evoke again. What is required now is real leadership and the necessary pragmatism to deal with our economic challenges and take some hard, principled decisions after 8 May. In this country of great complexity and contradiction, our freedom is linked not only to economic emancipation and opportunity, but also a sense of understanding and relating to "the other" across the ingrained fault lines of race and class.

The meaning of 27 April 1994 was about creating something new, grasping the urgency of a fresh development trajectory and reaching across divides so that this country lies "within" and not "between" us, as Antjie Krog wrote in ‘Country of grief and grace’.

That is the triple challenge of Freedom Day this year.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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