Every year, on April 27, South Africa celebrates Freedom Day to remember a momentous date, April 27, 1994, in its history, when its nationals of all races – black, white, Asian and colored – participated in the first democratic election that ended the reign of the racially repressive apartheid system. Nelson Mandela, the selfless hero of the struggle against apartheid, was elected president in that election.
Freedom Day is not just another holiday in South Africa. According to the government, “Freedom Day recognises and celebrates the strides that have been made since 1994, and acknowledges that South Africa is a far better society than it was under apartheid. It is also a period of reflection on what else needs to be done collectively toward the goal of building a prosperous society and improving the quality of life for all”.
South Africans are urged to remember that their freedom was hard-earned, and must therefore be cherished and protected. Many martyrs died at the hands of the brutal apartheid state during the struggle, and others sacrificed the prime of their lives languishing in prison for the cause.
During the past 28 years, South Africa has worked hard to heal the wounds of centuries of colonialism, segregation and white minority rule, and to build a strong and fair society in diversity. The country’s post-apartheid constitution guarantees equal human, political and social rights to all individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity or language, while at the same time empowering the state to use fair discrimination to remedy inequalities created under apartheid. The constitution is acclaimed as one of the most progressive in the world.
Remedying inequalities spawned by apartheid is the basis for policies such as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), under which the state seeks to boost the participation of blacks in the economy through legislated targets on black ownership and management of firms, black share in employment, as well as black share in procurement. BEE has lessened the divide between blacks and whites in the control of capital in the economy and lifted many blacks into the middle class. But its critics, who include Thomas Piketty, the French economist noted for his deep understanding of the subject of inequality, say that BEE has failed to spread wealth sufficiently or significantly reduce overall inequality in South Africa.
Indeed, South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal countries, according to the commonest measure of inequality known as the Gini coefficient. The country’s Gini, on a scale of 0 to 1 in which 0 represents perfect equality and 1 perfect inequality, ranges between 0.66 and 0.70, according to the World Bank. The top decile (10%) of the population accounts for 58% of the country’s income, while the bottom decile accounts for 0.5% and the bottom half less than 8%. This income distribution is reckoned to be worse than during apartheid.
The World Bank, however, notes that: “The current administration is acutely aware of the immense challenges to accelerate progress and build a more inclusive society”. The country’s 2030 National Development Plan seeks to double GDP by 2030, eliminate poverty and reduce inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, from 0.70 to 0.60.
Boasting some of the continent’s strongest institutions – an independent judiciary, highly developed media, among others – and a relatively dynamic economy, South Africa has the capacity to address its problems to realise the aspirations of its people and become a credible role model within the African continent.