Today we celebrate Freedom Day. It is the eighteenth anniversary of our democratic republic. We are emerging from our political and social adolescence, redoubtable and self-assured. There is still much turmoil. We are faced daily by an onslaught of fear, corruption, threat, challenge and vice. If you read everything, you’ll also find that behind the misery of the mainstream media there is also hope, co-operation, dialogue, opportunity and a patchwork unity. It is uniquely ours and it is the product of a diseased past and an uncharted future… But we are all wrapped up in the destiny of our young, tempestuous land.
The old South Africa means nothing to the children of today. It is as distant and dog-eared to them as those square photographs with white borders from the seventies my parents used to show me of the time before I was born. Too few study our history to fully grasp how far we have come, and while that is in some way unfortunate, in many cases it allows those of us who are keenly aware of our past to leave our baggage at the door also. We stand, with a few exceptions, in a wholly different era. To a twenty year-old, there was no President before Mandela, and those approaching their thirties might have no memory of him but for the documentaries or school textbooks that tell his, and our, incredible story. Adult Americans under Ford and Carter had the same halcyon view of the Kennedy era that we have now of President Mandela’s term of office. It really was that long ago, and the bitter, ugly truth of our post-1990 settlement has mostly given way to an evolving mythology. We compare this present time with that and see it somehow wanting.
The world is changing faster and in more powerful ways than any man could have imagined. In each of our hands we hold devices that link us to everyone else. Instantly, conversations that might have been controlled by governments and corporations before, can overthrow them in days. Serving in the military is, in our country an option, and an unlikely one for any eighteen year-old. Parents, priests, even Presidents no longer qualify for automatic respect and authority. The genie is out of the bottle. Government is now with the people, not for or over the people. If it is of the latter two, it is on borrowed time. Men can no longer assume unqualified domination over women. Young does not give way to old. White and Black have and must come together.
Of course, the system is imperfect, because we are imperfect. As George Bernard Shaw said, “Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.” Those who turn eighteen with South Africa, in South Africa must be the ones who dream and ask why not. There can be no idle passengers on this ship. We must all work. Either the time is ripe for us to forge a great nation, compete with the best in the world and leave our past behind, or it is a time to watch dreams be dashed on the rocks by complacency and apathy. The old adage about patriotism being a last refuge for scoundrels, uttered by Samuel Johnson, has been borne out all around us. In our northern neighbour Zimbabwe we see the cruel harvest of undiluted liberation theology and the kleptocracy that is its’ bedfellow. The better, more noble service a man might perform for his country is the civic duty to get involved, to argue passionately for what is right, to stand up to authority, to demand services. This must be done with élan, not with violence or by force. Domination must give way to dominion. The exercise of power must be a more subtle, more generous activity. The government of the South Africa of tomorrow must be altogether more patient, more inspiring, more determined to serve, and they must deliver results, not excuses.
We are often greedy, insular, myopic and insensitive to each other – but we’re getting better, and we should pause to acknowledge that. Even if you weren’t there, remember how fragile everything was in the early nineties, or at least admit that to be alive now is a far better thing for more of us than it ever was then. There are dinosaurs that will hearken back to a time past and claim that it was more than it was, but they are like the alumni who return to re-live the glory days, fact giving way more and more to romance and fantasy as every year goes by.
We must be proud.
We must also be jealous. Jealous of our freedoms. Jealous of our constitution. Jealous of our shared future. If we allow ambitious politicians, powerful businesspeople, mobs or manipulators to gain even a foothold, they will find ways of stealing as much as they can. It is a time for citizens, for society to lead. The world is undergoing a leadership crisis that makes the financial crisis pale into insignificance. We cannot expect a tribal chief, a benevolent king or an inspiring father-figure to do anything for us anymore. There are no powers available to such men anymore, and there are no such men left.
I turned eighteen in 1995. My whole adult life has taken place under the open, infinite, liberated sky. I cannot speak for those who are older than I am, but I can speak for those of my age and those who are younger – and we see things differently. When it comes our turn to plot the course for our own children, to take the reins, we will be motivated by completely different energies than those which shaped the leaders of today. Real freedom is, for the first time, within our grasp. Freedom is yours and mine to take. To have it, you only need to do two things: Treat no other man as a slave; and allow no man to treat you like one. For an individual, in a country such as ours, this is entirely possible. It has never been so before, in all the history of mankind.