Covid-19 reminds us we have failed in our mission set 26 years ...

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Covid-19 reminds us we have failed in our mission set 26 years ago

We must celebrate freedom, but we cannot say we are a non-racial, non-sexist SA that vanquishes poverty and inequality

Columnist
Food parcels are handed out to vulnerable Soweto residents in lockdown. The prosperous few can never be content, no matter what they say, when their compatriots are worried about where the next meal comes from.
Poverty of the mind Food parcels are handed out to vulnerable Soweto residents in lockdown. The prosperous few can never be content, no matter what they say, when their compatriots are worried about where the next meal comes from.
Image: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

It might not feel like it, but being in lockdown on April 27 2020 might be the best possible way to remind us of the meaning and preciousness of April 27 1994.

Today we celebrate our freedom – but not in its full beauty. We cannot go outside, we cannot raise our voices in gatherings with our fellow citizens and celebrate the fall of racial division and the rise of our unity and democracy.

Not only are we physically constrained, but we are also uncertain about our futures. Jobs and earnings will be lost. Education will be disrupted. The health of many may be tested. Some will die, many will fall ill. Every day is a battle now – and every sunset means we have won just one more day. Every sunrise is a beginning, a new battle to be won. These are uncertain times, say our leaders, and this time this is true.

So today let us remind ourselves of the full meaning of freedom. If there is an upside to this dastardly pandemic then it is that it has underlined that we have not fulfilled the mission that we set ourselves that gorgeous day of our freedom 26 years ago. We set ourselves a mission to build a united, non-racial, non-sexist, prosperous and democratic SA that vanquishes poverty and inequality.

Prosperous we are not. We know that we cannot be prosperous, none of us can be prosperous, when a small number of us sit in spacious homes while our fellow countrymen and women are huddled cheek by jowl in informal settlements across the land. Social distancing in this scenario seems like an insult. Quarantining is impossible. Self-isolation is a pipe dream. The Covid-19 pandemic reminds us powerfully that we have failed to lessen inequality in our country. The prosperous few can never be content, no matter what they say, when their compatriots are worried about where the next meal comes from.

We cannot rest easy, on April 27, when our compatriots are looting supermarket trucks and crying for food parcels that have not arrived. We cannot rest easy when a woman in Dobsonville, fully aware that what she is doing is illegal in terms of lockdown regulations, still goes out to sell atchaar. She is desperate to make some money, to put food on the table.

Covid-19 has not exposed these fissures. It has reminded us of all of them.

A non-sexist country? In the first week of this lockdown the police minister announced horrific figures in reports of gender-based violence. We have not changed our country when more than half of us, the women of our country, have to devise codes to indicate that they are in fear and being abused in their homes by their male partners. It cannot be right. It is not right. These are just some of the things this lockdown has magnified.

This freedom we have is precious – and fragile. Not many across the globe have it. Not many come even close to what we enjoy here in SA. We are truly blessed.

So many of us, and our leaders, will say: “When we get out of lockdown, we will ... ”

No, the truth is that this lockdown has amply illustrated that we do not have to wait for when the pandemic is past to begin the serious work of remaking our society and giving it what Steve Biko called its “more human face”. The minister of human settlements and water, Lindiwe Sisulu, is building houses and fast-tracking water provision at lightning speed. I don’t care to stop and ask her why she did not do it all this time.

I care that she must not stop on Friday, or the week after that. We cannot go back to “normal”. She must remain on emergency footing for the reason that we should have been in emergency mode way back in 1994. If she goes on at this rate, we will have defeated homelessness and the rise of informal settlements in a few years’ time.

All that said, we must celebrate April 27 fiercely, even under lockdown, because this freedom we have is precious – and fragile. Not many across the globe have it. Not many come even close to what we enjoy here in SA. We are truly blessed.

We must celebrate that blessing by making sure that the 73,000 troops who are out on the streets to help fight the Covid-19 pandemic are back in barracks in double quick time. We must make sure that curfews and the power of politicians to lord it over us are lifted in double quick time. We must make sure that these restrictions on us at the moment remind us of the preciousness of our freedom – and that we must return to it as quickly as we can.

Freedom is sweet. Our freedom is even sweeter today, because our sense of it is sharper for not having it. Let’s preserve this freedom. Let’s fight for it to deepen.

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