What does Freedom mean to you?

What does Freedom mean to you?
Democracy is the freedom to change your mind(This is an extract of a speech delivered by Helen Zille at the DA’s Freedom Day Celebrations in KZN)

celebrating freedom dayNineteen years ago, every South African over the age of 18 years was given the opportunity to vote in our first non-racial, democratic election. The camaraderie, the long queues and the feeling of hope we felt will live on in our memories forever.

After casting his vote, Nelson Mandela summed it up perfectly. He said:

“It is the beginning of a new era. We have moved from an era of pessimism, division, limited opportunities, turmoil and conflict. We are starting a new era of hope, reconciliation and nation building.”

The image of him smiling, ballot paper in hand, signalled the culmination of the struggle against apartheid.

While marking his ballot paper, Nelson Mandela remembered the many people who lost their lives fighting for this freedom. He later said when interviewed about that day: “I did not go into that voting station alone on April 27; I was casting my vote with all of them.”

Nineteen years on, it is unfortunate that many people take this right for granted. It often shocks me when I talk to people – especially young people – and they say they can’t be bothered to vote.

They don’t seem to understand the sacrifices that were made for them to exercise this precious right, or the power that voting affords them to change their lives.

Nelson Mandela knew this better than anybody, which is why he devoted his life to winning the right to vote. He also understood that equally important was the right to change your mind if circumstances change.

As he said in 1993: “If the ANC does to you what the Apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the Apartheid government.”

freedom day 3On Freedom Day we would do well to remember that democracy is not about slavish devotion to a particular political party. Democracy is about the freedom to choose; the freedom to change your mind.

A lot has been written in recent weeks about the ‘Know Your DA’ campaign we have embarked upon to tell South Africans the true story of our opposition to apartheid.

It has been met with controversy from some quarters. We have been accused of “air-brushing” history, of abusing Madiba’s legacy and, that old favourite, “political opportunism”.

These criticisms do not worry us. We cannot just sit back and allow the ANC’s propaganda to falsely paint the DA as the party of apartheid. And we will reject the ANC’s lie that if we win an election we will bring apartheid back.

The ANC is trying to use scare tactics and emotional blackmail to take away choice in South African politics. We cannot allow this to happen, which is why we are making a nation-wide effort to tell South Africa the truth.

The fact is that our predecessors, both individuals and political parties, who championed the values of the Open, Opportunity Society for all, are now in the DA. Many of them opposed apartheid and were instrumental in drafting the new non-racial constitution. Many of our current members and leaders were involved in the struggle against apartheid – either as part of the parliamentary opposition, like Helen Suzman, or as part of extra-parliamentary organisations such as the ANC, PAC, UDF or Black Consciousness Movement.

Supporters of the former National Party are now in a range of different parties. Their top leadership is in the ANC. Those in the DA recognise how wrong apartheid was. They have come to agree with Jan Steytler (the first leader of the Progressive Party) who, with visionary foresight predicted: “One day South Africa will be governed by our principles because it cannot be governed any other way.”

The DA has also made it repeatedly clear: Racists of any kind are not welcome in our midst.

Helen Suzman, the only Progressive Party MP for 13 years, was the only MP who consistently and relentlessly fought against every apartheid measure the National Party sought to entrench in law.

She opposed the law that required every black South African to carry a pass book at all times.

She opposed the law that allowed police to detain someone – first for 90 days and later for 180 days – without bringing them to trial.

She opposed the notorious Group Areas Act – a law that forced people to live in separate areas on the basis of race, and that pushed black people to the outskirts of towns and cities, far away from jobs

She resisted the forced removals implemented under the Group Areas Act that destroyed whole communities.freedom day2

She opposed laws that reserved certain job categories for whites; laws that segregated beaches, parks, toilets and transport; and laws that told people who they could love and marry.

Helen’s relentless opposition shone an international spotlight on the atrocities of apartheid and helped mobilise support for anti-apartheid campaigns, throughout the world.

Nelson Mandela later paid tribute to Helen Suzman when she accompanied him to the signing of our first democratic Constitution into law. He said: “Your courage, integrity and principled commitment to justice have marked you as one of the outstanding figures in the history of public life in South Africa.”

He was echoing the words of Chief Albert Lutuli who, 33 years earlier, wrote in a letter to Helen Suzman: “Forever remember, you are a bright star in a dark chamber, where lights of liberty of what is left, are going out one by one…Not only ourselves – your contemporaries, but also posterity, will hold you in high esteem.”

It saddens me that Helen was never adequately recognised for her courage in challenging the edifice of the apartheid government. The fact that some ANC spokespeople of today see fit to belittle her contribution shows just how far they have departed from the values held dear by icons like Mandela and Lutuli.

I was therefore delighted that the national government saw fit this week to confer the Order of the Baobab on Colin Eglin, another torchbearer of our political tradition. It was particularly apposite that he received the award for “his dedication and courage in standing up for the principles of equality for all South Africans against the unjust laws of the past.”

The DA of today is made of people from many different political traditions. People like Basil Kivedo, the Mayor of Breede Vallei, who was jailed for his underground activities as a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe. Our Federal Chairperson Wilmot James’ involvement in the struggle reaches back to his days in the Black Consciousness Movement when his opposition to the Group Areas Act had him detained and imprisoned.

The Mayor of Cape Town, Patricia de Lille, was once a trade unionist and PAC Leader. Joe Seremane, our former Federal Chairperson, was also a PAC member. He spent six years on Robben Island and was further detained without trial from 1976 to 1978, and several times between 1982 and 1984.

Like Nelson Mandela, these leaders understand that, in politics, values are more important than partisanship. They might come from different political backgrounds, but they have come together in the DA because they share the goal of redressing apartheid’s legacy through good governance, sound policies and delivery for all.

All of them also recognise that out of all the rights that come with a democracy, none is more important than the right to vote and, more importantly, the right to change one’s mind and vote a political party out of power if it is failing to deliver and uphold the rights and freedoms contained in our Constitution.

If we want to honour their legacy, we need to make sure we use our power to full effect and ensure that if a government is failing it is held accountable through the ballot box.

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