THEMBI SIWEYA: South Africa’s story is not only one of doom and gloom


With every year’s 27th April Freedom Day, which is in essence our birthday, South Africa is offered an opportunity to take a step back and take stock. And one of the important issues to consider is how the laws and policies of the country are made, who can influence what they look like and for whose benefit are they made.

One of the major reasons the country’s constitution is said to be amongst the most progressive in the world is because of how it provides for both representative and participatory democracy. Through elections that have been successfully happening every five years without fail, representative democracy is seen through voting of public representative and political parties of choice. In between elections, the government is obliged to consult affected people, organisations, and communities when it makes laws and policies, meaning there is participatory democracy.

It is true that South Africa’s freedom did not come for free. The hardships and turmoil suffered to get us where we are today also inspired thinking about the type of constitution that will be best for our country. And it is true that weaknesses can be highlighted. The fact though is that as it learns from its mistakes, government has been looking at how best to ensure that the constitutional requirements of a representative and participatory democracy are implemented better and more firmly.

What is particularly encouraging is how this type of democracy has provided for many who have taken up opportunities presented by our country’s constitutional order. It might be that there is a specific law that more directly made such progress possible. But such law is generally based on the South African Constitution in terms of what it says and how consultation happened for it to be written.

Take, for example, the story of retrenched workers of Rainbow Chicken. Their initiative, called Isukile Agricultural Co-operative was started by 129 former employees of Rainbow Chicken in December 2020. It is reported that this innovative “Thuma Mina” type of effort now has over 30 employees. The commemoration of Freedom Day is also about appreciating how our constitutional order has made these types of good stories possible. Not to say we do not acknowledge wrong turns and mistakes. But that we do not allow ourselves to accept that South Africa’s story is only one of doom and gloom.

And if one reads the South Africa The Good News Website, you will better appreciate how strides have been made to bring our Constitution to live. For example, only 6 countries have a higher proportion of women parliamentarians than South Africa which is standing on over 40%. According to Open Budget Index 2019, South Africa has the most transparent budget in the world behind New Zealand and Sweden.

In his latest book, Neither Settler Nor Native, one of Africa’s leading scholars, Ugandan-born Mahmood Mamdani says that compared to five countries he studied, South Africa has been able to break colonial divisions and start a new political community. While referring to the South African national project as an “incomplete success”, he points to the fact that instead of punitive justice, “South Africans sat around the conference table”.

The outcome of this approach to our apartheid past is the South African Constitution and the laws that are made based on this supreme law. And it is through the spirit and letter of this Constitution that we have the kind of women representation in legislatures, amongst other key and important institutions. It is also why we approach our country’s budget in the way that we do.

And knowing that our freedom did not come free, we must cherish these positive stories about our country and build on them so as to realise the type of future we want.

Thembi Siweya serves as Deputy Minister in the Presidency. Follow her on Twitter: @ThembiSiweya

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