“South Africans wanted freedom and all they got was democracy,” we are told by Sammy Mgijima. A visionary thinker on African post-liberation economics, Sammy is a qualified economist, who works at Old Mutual Corporate.
“For the true fruits of freedom to be realized, the creation of a national identity, a common understanding of what it means to be South African and having a common goal of how the country should progress is imperative.”
The year 1990 turned out to be a watershed moment in the history of South Africa following the unbanning of the liberation movements and the release of Nelson Mandela. This lead to a sequence of events which culminated in the country’s first fully democratic elections.
Unlike most other African countries, the transition to democratic rule could not be traditionally classified as ‘independence’, due to the negotiated settlement. This raises the question whether the advent of democracy can really be qualified as freedom. As my close friend put it ‘South Africans wanted freedom and all they got was democracy.”
Freedom is a subjective term that can have different interpretations depending on the individual. Democracy in the country was intended to bring about societal transformation, with the creation of an equal opportunity society where all citizens enjoy the same freedoms. Political freedom was the first step in this regard; and the ability for all eligible citizens to have the opportunity to vote has led to the widespread notion that freedom was attained in 1994. But this is not completely true: Without economic freedom, political freedom can lead to a misleading interpretation of freedom.
“Whites have seen their household incomes multiply since democracy.”
21 years after democracy, significant progress has been made in economic growth with the positive spin-offs that come with it (like a higher average household incomes). If you are white, freedom allowed for the continued preservation of the economic privileges you previously had. It also allowed for more opportunities to continue progressing from the already entrenched points of privilege. Whites have mostly seen their household incomes grow tremendously and the position of privilege well entrenched although there are pockets of poverty as well. The not-so-well-off will probably feel they have lost their previous privilege and ‘freedom’ has not been such a positive development for them. For Africans and other groups, there is now a platform for opportunities in social development and wealth accumulation. Subsequently, new elites have been created as in the typical post-colonial state.
Opportunities have been created and the middle class has grown substantially. However with high levels of unemployment and poverty still prevailing, the poor are seeing the ‘haves’ with a lot more than they do. The prevailing trend has been to depend on the state to provide for the poor and although large welfare programs have been of help, this will not be sustainable in the future and greater emphasis needs to be on enhancing human capital and allowing for greater opportunities for the poor to pull themselves forward.
For the true fruits of freedom to be realized, the creation of a national identity, a common understanding of what it means to be South African and having a common goal of how the country should progress is imperative. The National Development Plan is the ideal platform for this. However as most things go, better on paper and lacking on implementation. The sooner we decide on the importance of implementation, the sooner more and more of our citizens will start to enjoy freedom. The status-quo is unsustainable for future progress.
By Sammy Mgijima
He writes in his personal capacity.