When it comes to freedom and democracy, no country has a better story to tell than South Africa.
For decades the country was divided along racial lines, ruled by a government that oppressed the majority of its people and was a place where all citizens did not enjoy the same rights.
Yet despite this past, 20 years ago the country became a beacon of hope for the rest of the world, emerging united after the first democratic elections in 1994.
This year is one of celebration of all South Africans as the country marks 20 Years of Freedom.
To some people, freedom might mean the ability to do certain things that they were not allowed to do under the apartheid regime, such as moving freely in their country of birth.
Others might point to the democracy and freedom achieved in 1994 when all South Africans, irrespective of skin colour, voted in the country’s first democratic elections.
To others, freedom might mean the ability to associate with anyone they feel comfortable with, while some might highlight important issues like freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of the media.
To David Maimela, researcher at Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), freedom means being fully human.
MISTRA is an independent research institute that studies the strategic challenges facing South Africa.
“Freedom is to see yourself being treated as a human being with equal rights and responsibilities. The right to be able to live your life with dignity, free from oppression and exploitation.
“At a basic level it means freedom to live and have shelter, food, clothes and access to education and information to exercise your responsibility to improve yourself, others and the world you live in,” he explained.
Maimela said since the dawn of democracy in 1994, there has been a notable change in the lives of South Africans as a result of government’s intervention.
These include the provision of basic services with more South Africans enjoying access to water, electricity, sanitation, education and health care than ever before.
By 2011/12, more than 95 per cent of households had access to a basic level of water compared to about 60 per cent in 1994/5 and approximately 83 per cent of households had access to a basic level of sanitation compared to 50 per cent in 1994/5.
By 2013/14, 86 per cent of households had access electricity up from just over 50 per cent in 1994/5. On the health front, patients receiving anti-retrovirals increased to more than 1.7 million in 2011 up from 47 500 in 2004.
Maimela pointed out three key points that helped establish a democratic South Africa and strengthen the country further after 1994.
The first, he said, was South Africa’s approach in resolving political differences, where the leaders came together to find peaceful solutions, instead of allowing the situation to turn violent.
The second, Maimela pointed out, was that government acted decisively on issues that needed its intervention such as providing housing and health care.
The third he referred to was the space government created for public dialogue. It is in this space that South Africans can debate any issue without fear.
Despite these huge strides and the improvement in the lives of South Africans, challenges still remain such as poverty, unemployment and inequality.
Maimela said government led interventions are not enough and more still needs to be done.
“Socio-economic freedoms are still out of reach for majority of blacks and the working class. The state has tried to improve the quality of lives through initiatives such as increasing access to education and health, expanding the social safety net for the most vulnerable through social grants, free basic water and electricity, the Extended Public Works Programme and other job creation schemes. But that’s a minimal stop-gap measure programme and approach.”
For the country to deal with challenges such as youth unemployment and poverty, the economic and political elite need to come together and pull in one direction, he said.
More progress would be realised if political leaders and those with economic power made decisions for the collective good of all South Africans, Maimela added.
Government is well aware of the challenges it faces.
In his recent State of the Nation Address, President Jacob Zuma said: “Our country still faces the triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment, which we continue to grapple with. Dealing with these challenges has become a central focus of all democratic administrations.”
“South Africa is a much better place to live in now than it was before 1994. We continue to face challenges. But life will also continue to change for the better,” he added.