The 27th of April marks our country’s first post-apartheid elections held on this day in 1994. For the first time in our nation’s history, people of all races were able to vote in that election and the victory of the African National Congress with Nelson Mandela as its President heralded the end of white minority rule.
Twenty three years later, South Africans celebrate and commemorate this momentous occasion as it reminds us of how far we have come and the sacrifices it has taken to get us here. Last week, I had a conversation with four friends who are young professionals about the meaning of freedom day and an interesting question was raised about whether white South Africans should celebrate this day or not.
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This question was motivated by the fact that before 1994, unlike other race groups, white people were allowed to vote. White people also exclusively enjoyed a whole range of rights and freedoms which were denied to others. Some of these friends of mine therefore found it odd that white people should join in the celebrations and some found it offensive and that in doing this, whites are making a mockery of a significant chapter in black history. So is there merit to this argument? Should white South Africans stay away and not gate crash a party meant for blacks only? The answer for me is clear: white people must join black people in the Freedom Day activities.
The motivation behind my thinking is twofold. The first is that whether one likes it or not, white people are South Africans too. We don’t often recognise this but the consequences of that first democratic election not only had an impact on black citizens but it affected whites too. You see, for the first time in many white people’s lives, they had to accept on that day that the laws of this country no longer serve their interests alone but that everyone else was now their equal. Take this in for a moment.
The apartheid regime taught whites that they were superior to everyone else. It was Hendrick Verwoerd himself who said there’s no value in teaching a black child maths and science because he would never have to use it. On the 27th April 1994, whites had to accept that preferential treatment by the state was now over. Their children would now sit in class with black children. There would no longer be public amenities reserved for whites only. The president of their country would be black.
Their world had been changed too. So they need to acknowledge this change by accepting it. They need to accept that they live in a country that does not consider them more or less important than anyone else. If whites accept these changes then they need to join everyone else in acknowledging the shifts that took place on that day.
The second reason for my sentiments is that white people have to celebrate the advent of democracy because it’s a duty they owe. Simply put: whites should not be let off the hook. Apartheid was designed to ensure that whites enjoyed privileges at the exclusion of everyone else. If white people truly embrace the meaning of Freedom Day they need to also embrace that mopping up the mess bequeathed by apartheid is their business too. Keeping whites away from participating in monumental occasions like Freedom Day is akin to absolving them of their responsibility.
However, this responsibility means more than enjoying a braai or going to the beach on this public holiday. It means going beyond speaking of freedom as an abstract idea. Whites need to recognise black struggles in democratic South Africa as legitimate and to regard these as issues that are important to them too. The 27th April 1994 was not a destination but it was a point of departure.
We may now enjoy the same rights and freedoms but the quality of black lives is still inferior compared to that of whites. Changing this is not the duty of a black led government alone but whites who benefitted directly from apartheid or through generational wealth accumulated because of it need to realise that this is their burden too. There can be no true freedom without this.