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BUSANI NGCAWENI: On Freedom Day, whose democracy is it anyway?

This year’s Freedom Day celebration is unique not only because it marks the silver jubilee since 1994, but it takes place 11 days before the country goes into the sixth national general election.

Of paramount importance to note is the fact that South Africa continues to disappoint the expectations of the cynics who are the proponents of the proverbial tale of being “another African failed state” syndrome.

This phrasing gained momentum when just immediately after Ghana, under the tutelage of Kwame Nkrumah, hoisted the first flag of a liberated African state and such jubilation was short-lived.

Ever since then, a wave of coups d'état were unleashed from one state to the other, orchestrated by those who did not hesitate to shoot their way to the highest office.

What was even worse was the scourge of rampant corruption where the former liberators turned to plunder their respective state resources and lived in opulence in the midst of abject poverty facing their people.

Although progress is often at a snail’s pace, South Africa is on a path toward creating a national democratic society. We have an acclaimed Constitution that ensures that power is not vested in one branch but separated between Parliament, the judiciary and the executive, guided by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The people have access to equal justice and the Constitution’s Bill of Rights protects socio-economic rights such as access to basic water, housing and education.

The judiciary remains active in ensuring that the rule of law applies in the same manner to the layman on the street as it is to the powerful in society. However, there are still struggles to transform the legal profession and the judiciary, both in terms of demographics and attitudes.

The legislature, through Parliament, ensures that the executive remains accountable to the citizens. While on the other hand, the executive arm of government ensures that services are delivered to the people.

The question remains as to whether we have arrived, and if not, are we on the right path to achieve the ideals of building a prosperous and democratic society that claims its rightful place in the table of mankind.

South Africa remains amongst few countries that build housing and provide healthy drinking water to its citizenry. Many of the young people who will be voting on 8 May are beneficiaries of government’s sponsored student financial assistance, particularly those whose families could not afford tertiary education.

The work of building a democratic society remains an ongoing project which surely requires a collective effort. This is evidenced by the ongoing revelation in the State Capture Commission, which put emphasis that our democracy is not cast in stone. It must be jealously guarded by all citizens. Things always have a tendency of going wrong when people or nations lower their guards.

Often this takes place when challenges that affect the people take a backseat and failure to address or resolve them before they are too late.

Among the many ways to ensure that our democracy's checks and balances are constantly activated is when our people don't shy away from asking whether we are still on the right track to create a non-racial, democratic and free society!

The answer to this question will elicit different responses, which is as healthy to democracy as oxygen is to the lungs.

To the unemployed person on the street, freedom may have a different meaning as compared to one who is employed. Just as those who are still waiting for government to assist them with housing and access to drinking water, freedom will surely have a different meaning.

The reality of the past 25 years – without being categorical – has witnessed repeats of racially motivated incidents.

Having said that, the challenge is how to communicate achievements of the past 25 years to the ears that are still awaiting their turn to receive services. Nature being the way it is has never allowed a vacuum to exist!

Failure to talk about the millions of families who benefited from government houses or those who are beneficiaries of social grants will give rise to distorted voices that turn to discredit whatever good was achieved since the democratic breakthrough of 1994, especially in the election period.

From the onset we said we want to build a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa. It is against these ideals that we should conscientiously measure where we are two and half decades later. We may have near universal access to primary education for girls, with many more accessing secondary and tertiary education. Black women’s participation in the labour market may have more than doubled since 1994, but that will answer one part of the question, the other part stains our record. That is, we remain a sexist society judging by the scourge of femicide and gender-based violence.

The founding values and principles from our forebears was based on the reality that things will not always be the same. The dream of building a better South Africa must never be allowed to slip into complacency of stopping to imagine a better society than that which we inherited from the past.

Like a heavily traded asset at the stock exchange, democracy is a contested political phenomenon. It can be traded for the benefits of many, with dividends equitable distributed. Or the dividend can be narrowly be enjoyed by the elites who share the spoils among themselves.

For democracy to become a true public good, its dividends must be enjoyed by all. That, perhaps, is the next frontier in this forward march towards creating a national democratic society.

Busani Ngcaweni is co-editor of 'We are No Longer at Ease: The Struggle for #FeesMustFall'. Follow him on Twitter: @busani_ngcaweni