Honour Your Past; Own Your Future

Helen Zille,

Leader of the Democratic Alliance

On this day, the 27th of April, exactly 18 years ago a democratic South Africa was born. Voters went out in their millions, most of them for the first time ever, to make their mark for the political party of their choice. This was a day of elation, joy and relief for millions of people who had unjustly suffered under an oppressive regime which divided our people for decades. This was a day that opened all South Africans’ eyes to a new beginning. There was optimism, and there was trepidation. The outside world did not believe that our country, breaking free from the shackles of oppression could peacefully make the transition to full democracy. And yet South Africa did it.

As our first democratically elected President, Nelson Mandela, put it so gracefully in his inaugural speech:

“We succeeded to take our last steps to freedom in conditions of relative peace. We commit ourselves to the construction of a complete, just and lasting peace.

We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity–a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

Freedom Day is our most important national celebration, and this particular freedom day is our most important one yet – for today is South Africa’s democratic coming of age. Usually we say someone has come of age when they turn 21. But this is not so for a democracy. Today is the day when anyone born on the 27th of April 1994 can legally vote and participate fully in our democracy. Those South Africans born in 1994 are the “born free generation”. They are representative of a new group, those who must lead the way to the fulfilment of Nelson Mandela’s non-racial, united vision for our country. They can proudly proclaim that they were born into a society where equal human rights, open opportunities and freedom are institutionally protected. They are the generation that carry our hopes for the future.

It is an opportunity for us to rejoice at the freedoms we have won and to celebrate what we have achieved as free people. In an incredibly short space of time South Africa went from being an authoritarian, oppressive and discriminatory state, to a constitutional democracy, committed to building an open society, with the rule of law and in which citizens may define for themselves who they want to be. This was a giant shift which most South Africans have taken in their stride -a great achievement, not only for ourselves but for the world.

As a member of the family of nations, we are now an equal partner, an adult.

1994 feels a long way away today. As a nation, our adult years must be defined by us. We have a responsibility to write our own story. We must own our future, by crafting it bit by bit. And when we look back in twenty or thirty years’ time, we will see that the last 18 years have only been the opening chapters of the South African story.

The free elections of 1994 gave the story an intriguing and inspiring beginning. When South Africa successfully hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the 1996 African Cup of Nations and went on to win both, South Africans felt a real sense of brotherhood that had hitherto been painfully absent. We experienced the joy of joining the international community once again and celebrated it in the best way possible – with victories!

The signing of the 1996 Constitution by President Mandela was a momentous event in our history. With the ratification of this document, all South Africans received a guarantee that their rights were in every way equal to those of all other South Africans. The sense of dignity that this has offered millions of South Africans is unparalleled, and our party continues to defend and protect that document from the multitude of threats that try to rise against it from time to time, and from all quarters.

It is the Constitution that continues to act as a firewall, serving to protect South Africans from a return to tyranny and the abuse of political power.

Free and fair elections have been a trademark of the new South Africa – with four general elections and three local government elections having taken place since the advent of democracy. The Independent Electoral Commission has played a central role in this achievement. In fact our electoral process is rated so highly that the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy for 2008 put us on par with the United States and Japan in that regard.

But successful democracies do not rely only on regular elections. There must also be meaningful political contestation, through voters who are prepared to change governments through the ballot box. That, in turn, requires citizens who know how powerful they are, and who use their power to full effect – enforcing accountability, ensuring service delivery, writing their own future.

There are encouraging signs that our democracy is getting stronger and stronger. Increasingly, no political party can claim to own any group of South Africans. People are increasingly voting for the party that delivers the best, that offers the most attractive vision of the future, and that unites South Africans.

As with any coming of age, turning 18 brings with it not only more freedom, but also real responsibility. Just as these 18 young people in front of me must soon cast off the ways of a child and deal with the pressures of adult life, so too must South Africa. It is now the time to take ownership of not only our many achievements, but also our faults. Only in doing so will we be able to honestly assess what eighteen years of freedom have meant so far, and determine what future we would like to build.

All of the checks and balances on government power, including the Constitution, the Courts, Section 9 institutions, the free media and civil society help restrict power abuse. But in the end the fundamental point at which the government must be held to account, is at the ballot box.

This is the best way that South Africans can embrace the power and responsibility that their freedom has bestowed upon them. South Africa’s history is one that is chequered with hardship in the face of adversity – many died in order to ensure a free future. We owe it to them to stand strong and use our freedom to define the future we wish to see.

That is why we are having this 18th birthday celebration here today, in a venue that in 1994 was a voting station. This is one of the places in which our democracy was born, along with similar schools, halls, churches and tents across the country. We have come here today, to the birthplace, to honour our past.

And not only to honour our past, but to take ownership of our future. That is why these eighteen young South Africans, all of whom are turning 18 years old this year, are here. They are the “born free” generation, and you have heard in their own words today, the vision, the aspirations, the soaring sense of hope and the big dreams they have for the future.

They have spoken about a nation in which each person has their place in the sun. They’ve told us their dream for a nation that prospers, a nation where everyone can work for a living, raise a child in a home in a safe community, and where all South Africans are reconciled one to another.

That is the DA’s vision too – one that has at its heart a commitment to all people, and a commitment to build a society in which all can live in dignity. To create an open opportunity society for all.

It is the “born free” generation that can now participate as full and active citizens without the deep emotional scars of the past. Come the 2014 national election, they too will have the chance to make history. Our democracy was born at the ballot box, and our future must be written at the ballot box.

Today, as the most important day of celebration and rejoice in our country, we honour our past, and we own our future.

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