27/04/2017 12:47 SAST | Updated 27/04/2017 12:54 SAST

Despite Government's Betrayal Of Mandela's Promise, We Can And Must Celebrate This Day

It's indisputable that SA today is a vastly better place than 23 years ago, it’s also clear that we’re at an important inflection point in our history.

Mike Hutchings / Reuters

We're becoming flippant about our democracy. "The Constitution needs to be overhauled... Nationalisation should never have been discarded as a policy option... What happened to FW de Klerk's promised 'checks and balances'?" We hear these remarks every day, albeit in different guises, from different quarters and directed at different audiences.

It is indisputable that South Africa today is a vastly better place than it was 23 years ago. But it's also clear that we're at an important inflection point in our history, a moment in time which might prove every bit as pivotal as 1910, 1913, 1948 and 1994. Our transition from an oppressive apartheid security state to an open democracy remains a remarkable achievement.

Sitting between Mac Maharaj and Leon Wessels at a lunch in May last year at Constitution Hill, at an event marking 20 years after the promulgation of the final constitution, I was struck by the light irritation in the conversation between the two former rival negotiators. Not with each other, but with the popular omissions from and myths around the transition period, omissions and myths increasingly finding root in fertile ground.

Both emphasised the fact that the realities of the time dictated to what extent the two protagonists – the National Party (NP) government and the African National Congress (ANC) – could shape events. For the NP, apartheid had become an economically unviable superstructure, for the ANC it became clear an insurrection was impossible. The result was a stalemate.

The subsequent negotiations pitted an established, if illegitimate, state and society against a legitimate, but ideologically disparate, liberation movement. And Maharaj's explained criticism of ANC negotiators, specifically directed at consensus around the sunset clauses and article 25 (the property clause), is unfounded. He argues the liberation movement was fiercely committed to restitution and the restoration of rights, but that to do so it needed to inherit a functioning and organised state.

That could only be ensured by negotiating in good faith and agreeing to transitional arrangements. Wessels agreed with Maharaj and recalled the late nights during which they thrashed out the architecture of a new society, to-ing and fro-ing as the two sides inched towards a workable framework which included the interim constitution, the transitional arrangements and the final constitution.

This government has betrayed Mandela's promise and does not consider itself "bound by a higher set of rules".

Both agree the NP could not hang on to power. To do so would have been suicidal and would have crippled the country. By the same token, it was impossible for the ANC to drive Russian T-62 tanks up Queen Wilhelmina Drive towards the Union Buildings. Wessels, now a fellow at the University of the Free State, and Maharaj, retired after spindoctoring for President Jacob Zuma, say the achievements of 1990 to 1994 should not be belittled or discarded in favour of petty populism. "What we did was a great achievement," Maharaj said.

Two weeks after 27 April 1994, on the 9th of May, Nelson Mandela delivered a speech after being elected as head of state by the newly established National Assembly. In a statement of just more than a thousand words – a framed copy of the Reuters telex with the speech's text hangs in my house – he sets out his vision of a new country and a new society, a heavy task "and one to which I am certain we will all rise".

Mandela said the milestones on the country's road to democracy laid the foundations of the country South Africa could become. And he added: "They (the milestones) project a democracy in which the government, whomever that government might be, will be bound by a higher set of rules, embodied in a constitution, and will not be able to govern the country as it pleases."

This government has betrayed Mandela's promise and does not consider itself "bound by a higher set of rules". It clearly only believes in the Constitution when it suits them and when its forced to do so. But everything that's wrong with South Africa does not disqualify everything that's right. And that's why we can and must celebrate Freedom Day.