Freedom Day: A False Celebration?
South Africa today marks 16 years since the nations’ first truly democratic elections were held in 1994. The day is celebrated by a national public holiday, Freedom Day, and stadia all over the country will see celebrations, dancing and singing as South Africans freely express their diversity and shared humanity.
Without doubt, these events will also see political leaders behind podia extolling the citizens to be thankful for the freedoms that they now enjoy and to celebrate with an appreciation and gratitude to the leadership of the nation. But is the state of South Africa today truly something worth celebrating?
16 Years Longer Lived
16 years is a long time. In terms of the life expectancy of an average South African, it’s pretty much a third of a lifetime. At a little over 51 years of age (according to The World Bank Development Indicators) this figure has declined from a figure of 61 years of age in 1994.
When this is put into context of the world average life expectancy of 67.2 years of age it’s interesting to note that 16 years into the democratic South Africa, we can expect to live 16 years less than our average fellow human beings. That’s an almost 30% shorter life than the world average for young South Africans to look forward to.
A ‘Barometer’ Statistic
Why this focus on life expectancy I sense you wondering quietly as you decide whether to continue reading.
“Life expectancy at birth indicates the number of years a newborn infant would live if prevailing patterns of mortality at the time of its birth were to stay the same throughout its life.”
I’ve always felt that life expectancy is a bit of a barometer statistic. Like the weather barometer which measures air pressure, humidity, temperature and other climatic elements to tell us whether it’s going to rain or not, life expectancy figures are a collective indicator of a number of elements within a nation.
Social stability, standards of health care, literacy levels, employment, poverty levels, economic development, education, crime levels – all of these and more manifest themselves in some way in life expectancy figures. It’s the ultimate “quality of life” measure.
The better the other measures are, the longer the citizens live. At least that’s my theory.
Statistics Don’t Tell The Whole Story
So does the decline in life expectancy over the past 16 years mean that South Africa has declined in the other areas as well? Surprisingly, in many cases, the simple answer is “no we haven’t.”
From the same set of World Bank stats we see, for example, that poverty levels have declined from 38% in 2000 to 22% in 2008; adult literacy levels have increased from 76% in 1980 to 89% in 2008; even urban socialisation measures show improvement – sanitation levels in urban communities for example.
South Africa is the worlds’ 25th largest country by area and population. It ranks at 32nd in terms of GDP on most accepted indices. And yet, on the life expectancy chart it’s positioned at a lowly 178th.
When we monitor and then use the positive statistics in this way to show how far we’ve come as a nation, whilst ignoring those that show decline in development, we create, as Jorge Luis Borges suggested, a case of “democracy (becoming) an abuse of statistics”.
Reality Tells A Different Story
Interviews with citizens across the news channels today, conversations with friends and young South Africans, the general mood in the nation at the moment – all of these tell a slightly different story of a democratic free South Africa in its’ mid-teens.
Khayelitsha residents tell of the lack of development, the broken promises, the corrupt councillors. They show the world their hovels flooded by storm water, their ablutions in buckets, and their communal water taps that need to be shared with hundreds of others.
The university students talk of the campus cliques that evolve based on little more than racial grouping. They say things like “nothing has really changed in the last 16 years. It’s just one set of privileged people being replaced by another.”
The young students I work with express a sense of frustration with their belief that they are unable to effect real change in society themselves because the adults in their lives continue to harbour deep-rooted animosities and issues. This frustration manifests itself in an almost apathetic sense of citizenship amongst them.
The general mood of the nation continues to be mostly negative across the board. Dinner talk is of crime running rampant, corruption in government being endemic and South Africa rapidly heading in the same direction as our northern neighbour.
And of course we still have the annoying habit of putting each other down as often as possible. Our conversation is littered with stereotype and generalisations resulting in the ridiculous utterances of “the blacks are messing up this country”; “don’t come here with that white tendency”; “people who vote for the ANC are idiots”; “DA supporters are all racists”; “the rich don’t care about the poor”; “the blacks want to kill the whites”; “blacks are uncultured, uncivilised, criminal savages”; and on and on. And on.
Sweet 16 Is Not So Sweet After All
I was asked yesterday if I think South Africa is better now than it was before 1994. And my undoubted response was YES. Before then we were a country in limbo. Lying to ourselves (and the rest of the world) that a white minority could successfully govern a developing nation whilst holding the majority of its’ citizens in subjugation. Apartheid was a notion doomed to failure from the start.
And so here’s the rub Dear Reader: 16 years later do we really have much to celebrate in terms of our nations’ freedom?
And again, I must suggest that YES, we certainly do. The mere fact that 9 out of every 10 South Africans didn’t kick the other odd one firmly in the arse and send us off to Khayelitsha (or worse, back to our ancestral homes in Europe!) speaks volumes for the capacity of tolerance and forgiveness in most South Africans.
But we haven’t gone far enough yet to convince everyone that this nation is on the right track, and that it will become a global model for democracy and development in the future. 16 years of freedom cannot automatically erase 40 years of segregated society and some 350-odd years of colonial racism. It cannot remove the stumbling blocks to democratic equality and the social ills that trouble the nation.
But it can help to point us in the right direction. And I believe that we are heading in the right direction. Slowly perhaps, but surely, the nation will grow into adulthood.
Maybe we’ll have this conversation again when the teenager has grown into its’ mid-20’s. Maybe by then the pimples would have cleared, the identity crisis would have been resolved, and we will have grown out of our rebellious teenage phase.
Maybe then it will be a better time to celebrate.