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South African Freedom Day 2010 – some reflections

Updated on March 27, 2011

What sort of freedom?

As I sit in my study this cool autumn morning the peace of the deep blue sky, covered with fluffy white clouds, is shattered by the screaming of some jet fighters careering across it. As the planes go I watch fascinated. They are technological marvels, no doubt about it. And they are practising for the fly-past that will be part of the country's Freedom Day celebrations next Tuesday.

And I wonder: how many children's meals are their exhausts spewing out? How many decent books for children to read are being burnt by those powerful engines as they roar across the sky above the otherwise peaceful suburb? How many treatments for AIDS sufferers are being swallowed up in the planes' greedy maws? And most importantly, perhaps, what sort of freedom is it that needs a display of efficient killing machines to celebrate it?

The beautiful South African flag
The beautiful South African flag
The Union Buildings loom over Pretoria. Photo Tony McGregor
The Union Buildings loom over Pretoria. Photo Tony McGregor
A typical apartheid-era sign. Image: Wikipedia
A typical apartheid-era sign. Image: Wikipedia

Celebrating the end of apartheid

The celebrations will be headlined by a special event at the Union Buildings, the Head Offices if you like, of the South African Government. The buildings themselves are beautiful, gracious edifices designed by famous architect and builder of many beautiful South African structures, Sir Herbert Baker, to house the Government of the then Union of South Africa, created in 1910. Part of the celebrations, as I have mentioned, will be a fly past of fighters and helicopters of the South African Air Force. A deliberate flaunting of our national military might.

Since we have no enemies threatening us by land, sea or air, I wonder who these things are designed to impress? What is the purpose of this flashing of our weapons in celebration of our justly celebrated Freedom Day?

On 27 April 1994 the hated and odious apartheid regime was finally officially laid to rest, when the millions of citizens of this beautiful country voted, most of them for the first time in their lives, to elect a parliament that really represented all of us. I remember standing for many hours in the hot sunshine to cast my vote, at last, for the party of my choice, a party I believed most represented the people of South Africa. I in no way regret the choice I made then. Let me make that quite clear.

But hearing those planes fly over this morning made me think about what has happened in South Africa since then, and most especially about those planes, and how we come to have them.

Table Mountain from Die Bo-Kaap in Cape Town. Photo Tony McGregor
Table Mountain from Die Bo-Kaap in Cape Town. Photo Tony McGregor
Young Zulu girls in rural kwaZulu-Natal. Photo Tony McGregor
Young Zulu girls in rural kwaZulu-Natal. Photo Tony McGregor
Ndebele homestead in Mpumalanga Province. Photo Tony McGregor
Ndebele homestead in Mpumalanga Province. Photo Tony McGregor
Hot air ballooning near Johannesburg. Photo Tony McGregor
Hot air ballooning near Johannesburg. Photo Tony McGregor
Forestry operations in kwaZulu-Natal. Photo Tony McGregor
Forestry operations in kwaZulu-Natal. Photo Tony McGregor
Homes in a deep rural area of the Eastern Cape Province. Photo Tony McGregor
Homes in a deep rural area of the Eastern Cape Province. Photo Tony McGregor

Corruption taints our fledgling democracy

Back in the late 1990s, when our democracy was but a few years old, really still in diapers (it is now in its teens!) the government made a decision to go into a large purchase of arms to the value of tens of billions of rands. Not everyone in the country was pleased with this decision, since there seemed to many of us to be far more pressing needs in the country than arms. After all, we were not being threatened from outside, nor was there large-scale internal dissent. And people were still living in shacks instead of proper houses, thousands of school children had to have their lessons under trees instead of in proper class rooms, clean water and proper sanitation was still not available to millions, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic was starting to assume alarming proportions.

In the light of all these needs, and the need to as quickly as possible leave the terrible legacy of apartheid behind, it seemed that such huge sums of money could more effectively be spent in providing the kinds of services and amenities that apartheid had deliberately withheld from the majority of South Africans.

Government at the time said it was possible to do all the social development things needed and start the arms purchases, which it defended as being a long-term investment in the country's security.

Elaborate “counter-trade” deals were proposed to sweeten the spending of so much money on arms. Counter-trade was the undertaking by the arms suppliers to invest in various social development activities in South Africa in return for the deals. Some of this has happened, though not to the extent initially envisaged.

What has happened is that the huge arms supply contracts have created opportunities for corruption on a very big scale. This corruption has tainted the image of our new democracy, and its tentacles reach into all sectors of society, not excluding the presidency itself. Many politicians and others have already fallen victim to the corruption, and others have had their reputations seriously eroded by it.

Perhaps the most invidious aspect of the arms deal is the era of conspicuous consumption, the open grabbing for wealth, that it seemed to sanction. A movement that had over the years forged a disciplined group of people dedicated to liberating the poor and oppressed became, in the years after the democratic turn-around, a bloated, corrupt and ill-disciplined party of money-grubbing and grafting, alienating themselves from the very people for whose benefit the difficult years of struggle had been waged.

Map of South Africa from the Commonwealth website
Map of South Africa from the Commonwealth website

High hopes

Of course not all in the ruling party are tainted. There are still some who remain serious about liberation and the up-lifting of the people out of the poverty in which too many are still stuck. There are still some who are hard-working and disciplined in their approach to development. Perhaps even the majority of the party is made of such people.

The problem is the stench of corruption, the sludge of secret and underhand dealings, now sticks to the party and makes it look tawdry and shop-worn. It no longer looks or sounds like the pristine vanguard of the liberation struggle that it once was.

When former President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was inaugurated on that historic and euphoric day in May 1994, a flight of helicopters flew over the ceremony at the Union Buildings lofting huge South African flags beneath them. The new flag of the new democracy that was being born with such high hopes, after so many years of painful, difficult struggle. Seeing those flags bravely flying beneath those helicopters, my feeling was one of great happiness, great hope. For one thing, those helicopters were now “ours” and no longer “theirs”. It was a symbol of the change, of the new-found peace, that the helicopters that had once fought to preserve apartheid were now carrying the new flag of the new country, the new democracy. It was a powerful symbolic moment.

The planes that flew over my house this morning, though, are powerful symbols of something else. They seem to me to symbolise a wrong turn, a betrayal of the high hopes for peace and development that we felt in May 1994. They represent something wasteful, something dirty, something indeed that is rotten in our beloved country.

That is why I felt so incredibly sad as those planes roared overhead this morning.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2010


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    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 8 years ago from South Africa

      Janny - thanks for the compliment and wish you success in searching for your roots.

      Love and peace


    • JannyC profile image

      JannyC 8 years ago

      Being that Africa is part of my heritage my heart goes out to the land. It makes me want to trace my family roots more and see exactly where they came from. I never explored my african heritage and I always felt I should. Great hub.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 8 years ago from South Africa

      Maita - thanks so much for this worthy comment! I appreciate very much that you visited and read my little piece!

      Love and peace


    • prettydarkhorse profile image

      prettydarkhorse 8 years ago from US

      Thank you for this worthy hub, I can still remember what Mandela fought for and the stories of apartheid. Thank you again and take care, Maita

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 8 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks Nancy. Yes it does seem to be pretty pervasive everywhere, doesn't it.

      Thanks for dropping by.

      Love and peace


    • profile image

      Nancy's Niche 8 years ago

      Very informative article Tony...Sounds like most governments are corrupt not matter what country your living in or reading about...

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 8 years ago from South Africa

      Debarshi - I agree that colonial rule created a fertile ground for corruption. This was made worse in South Africa by apartheid.

      Peggy - corruption is the reverse of the Robin Hood idea. It robs the poor to further enrich the already wealthy!

      Thank you both for your thoughtful comments which I deeply appreciate.

      Love and peace


    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      There seems to be corruption in most every government, sadly. Someone at the top chooses to benefit personally ignoring the plight of the masses. Like you, I would like a world in which the poor and hungry and unsheltered and ill could be better cared for instead of millions of dollars being squandered on seemingly needless projects. Your sign off tells what is in your heart......Love and Peace.

    • Debarshi Dutta profile image

      Debarshi Dutta 8 years ago from Calcutta

      A very well written hub.

      As about corruption in the political system that you have highlighted, we in India have a similar problem, even more deep rooted.

      This is true of all countries with a colonial history.

      This corruption exist in the system like a disease exist in the body.

      A disease can only exist in the body when the conditions that favour the disease exist, no matter how healthy the body is otherwise, it remains susceptible to the disease.

      Similarly, the past of all countries with a colonial history is one of exploitation by imperialistic nations with vested interests..and the momentum of the past history continues..into present and corruption of the political system is the obvious manifestation.

      Just like a sad childhood often creates a sad adulthood...until the adult is able to do something about his situation.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 8 years ago from South Africa

      Tammy - thank you for your appreciation and kind words. It si sometimes difficult to keep on keeping on, but with comments like your's it is easier. Thanks

      Chasingcars - it is about justice, it is about equality and fairness. Your support means a lot.

      Story - your comments are deeply appreciated. The flaunting of military might in the face of poverty and hunger is just dreadful. Have to keep on speaking out!

      DG - your words are very encouraging - and I will send you a photo as soon s I have got the shirt made!

      Thanks all for the creative and supportive comments. I really appreciate them very much.

      Love and peace


    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 8 years ago from UK

      I like to think that as long as there are people like you, Tony, then there is hope. Corruption is all pervasive in politicians of all countries, which does not make it acceptable of course, but at the end of the day it is a matter of scale. And also a matter of skill, by the way. The politicians in the UK are quite skilled. Those of SA are perhaps TOO obvious. It is up to people like you to create the foundation of reducing the scale.

      And do try to promote those T-Shirts with the words "100% South African" over the breast pocket :-)

    • Storytellersrus profile image

      Barbara 8 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      Tony, it is a sad commentary that I was unaware of how young your nation is- I have such a wrong impression and I apologize for my ignorance. That is the first response I have to this article! How little I am aware.

      The second connection was a visual of Chinese military might which was flaunted during their 60th anniversary celebration in October. This reminded me that nations coming into their own power find it empowering to strut their weapons for all the world to see and certainly the media spread these photos across international papers.

      I am completely in agreement with chasingcars regarding the American approach to defense. I support Obama wholeheartedly and am, like you, happy with the decision I made in the last election.

      I wonder, at moments when I read about Pakistani terrorists in India for example, whether defense has its place in the grand scheme of evil hearts but gathers preeminence because we fail to speak out as you did here, Tonymac.

    • profile image

      chasingcars 8 years ago

      As usual, a very quality hub, and I share your sentiments. When I hear people in this country complain of our deficit and complain that we can't afford to take care of our sick, elderly, and poor because it would add to the deficit but, yet, insist on spending most of our wealth on "defense", I get very angry and sad. That's the corruption also in our country. We share a common struggle for equality and peace. Most of us Americans think that President Obama is the best thing that has happened to us. It is not an easy job turning a bus headed for the brink around and with corrupt people nipping at his heels all the while. We, too, have faith in our future and still hope for peace and prosperity for all nations. Thank you.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 8 years ago from South Africa

      Tatjana - it will pass and we will come out the stronger for it. I just feel for the people who are robbed of what they deserve because of corruption.

      Indeed yes, Ethel, the end of apartheid was a very hopefull time. And we will realise that hope, of that I'm sure. Corruption is endemic in politics, I would say. So while I am very sad about it right now I don't think it's the end of the world!

      Thanks to both of you for caring enough to comment

      Love and peace


    • ethel smith profile image

      Eileen Kersey 8 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      Sad news Tony. In the UK we watched the end of apartheid with high hopes also. Your country has so much to offer but corruption looks set to damage its future. Corruption is unfortunately present in governments around the world I guess it is the amount that is significant.

      Here's hoping things turn around soon

    • Tatjana-Mihaela profile image

      Tatjana-Mihaela 8 years ago from Zadar, CROATIA

      Thank you for this Hub, Tony.

      Corruption and greed is problem everywhere in the world today. With so many people and high level of poverty, it is nothing strange that that ones who have power decide to misuse it, especially in countries who experience some political transition. Hopefully, this will pass by.

      Love and peace

    • profile image

      Tammy Lochmann 8 years ago

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts...I can empathise with you about how the government spends needlessly on things that don't really matter. As you know I am a nurse and I see the needy and the sick every day. Every little bit of compassion, every penny you give to the needy helps. There are few who don't believe in democracy and peace. The majority does. Keep using your voice and you will be heard.

      I hope this doesn't sound patronizing. I enjoy the emotion and quality of your hubs. Tammy

    • msorensson profile image

      msorensson 8 years ago

      Thank you Tony. I am glad to hear that there is no civil war brewing.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 8 years ago from South Africa

      BJ - well I think your president is great, especially considering the person he followed. But that's just my opinion. Our president is a charming man but perhaps too charming is his problem!

      Melinda - I think your friends who think a civil war is brewing are really out of touch. That is not even a remote possibility. That there is trouble in the land is clear, mostly because of greed and corruption. But the vast majority of the people, of all races, just want to get on with life. These reflections were just my slightly sad ones of a great opportunity being squandered.

      Overall I do not have a sense of doom and gloom in South Africa. The fact that we can and do openly debate these issues with some vigour is in itself a sign of hope.

      I am still optimistic that the things that are troubling me in South Africa are problems of the transition from the horrors of apartheid to a more open and democratic society in which robust debate is not only possible but happens daily.

      We are a resilient people! The rottenness that came into the country with the so-called "arms deal" will be rooted out and we will get on with the urgent and necessary jobs of improving the situation in our schools, expanding basic services to all, improving health care, and so on.

      Thanks to both of you for visiting and commenting. Much appreciated.

      Love and peace


    • msorensson profile image

      msorensson 8 years ago

      I have a few friends who live there. They are quite unhappy, and further, they are convinced that there is a civil war brewing so they would like to leave as soon as possible.

      I can now relate to their sentiments, so thank you for that.

      On the other hand,some friends in the UK have families in Cape Town and it seems that life goes on there.

      I love your conclusion, Tony. Thank you for this hub.

    • BJBenson profile image

      BJBenson 8 years ago from USA

      Hey, come live in America where you have a president that keeps telling, he knows better than everyone else. Like it or not . That keeps apologizing for your home country being a great world power. I understand how you feel.I can only hope and pray that things do not get worse for our countries.


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