ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

Celebrating and Commiserating our 20 Years of Democracy in South Africa

I was part of that last generation of South Africans who had an experience of apartheid.   This years commemorations coincide with the divisive exaggerations of  an impending election on 7 May,  and have been both laconic and polarising.  What could have been a unifying moment of a past remembered and future reimagined has turned out rather differently. 20 years after that first election we are a country divided, between those who say we have to celebrate, and those who lament that we can only commiserate. And there doesn’t seem to be a space for the acknowledgement in a less strident manner, of the possibility that we can do both, and that doing both can be a productive gesture of summoning the optimism of our will, from as Gramsci said, the pessimism of our intellects.

It might not be a matter of one view  being right and the other wrong. Rather, I would say that  we commemorate this day as a day of two rights.  Not right or wrong, but right and right. Those who say this date is remarkable  because we cannot  forget where we came from,  and is remarkable because  we are a different country with freedoms today,  are right. And those who ask in exasperation, what do we have to celebrate after twenty years  when we haven’t solved our nightmares, are also right.  

In our waking hours and our sleeping hours we live then in a country of two rights. We are right to celebrate. We are right to commiserate.  It is on  the rickety bridge of two rights that we walk. And we know that below this bridge of two rights there flows a river of historical wrongs we have inherited. And wrongs that we have created.

It’s difficult to navigate this bridge of two rights, the right to celebrate and commiserate. It’s a difficult bridge  to dance on.  It’s a difficult bridge to toyi-toyi on. [The toyi-toyi being the animated form of our protest.]. Its as if the  bridge of two rights says walk over me and as we Africans do,   dance, ululate and sing your songs of freedom.  And at the same time its as if  the bridge of two rights also says  the opposite: walk over me, and   raise your clenched fist as a colonised person does,  and wave it in anger and indignation,   not  at the past, but in anger at the present.

The bridge of two rights is on the one hand a pathway illuminated by the feel good glow of the candles of joy.   And on the other hand  the bridge of two rights is  difficult to cross over because  it is illuminated by the burning tyres that  darken the day skies,  as they did back then. There is  both the sweet afterglow of the candles of joy,  and there are the  flickering fires of protests, small fires, little  fires, but many fires.

It is a  country where things are changing in ways that we  would never have imagined: old enemies have become friends; and  old friends have become  or are becoming enemies. So, as we  commemorate  on this 20 years of Democracy we acknowledge our dilemma.

We remember  the country  we were not so long ago. We remember that we share the year 1994 with Rwanda. We remember the deceased, and the martyrs, and those political artists who  imagined a future at a time when both the imagination and the future were banished.

We remember where places we  couldn’t enter and  the places where we couldn’t live.  We remember that the majority were permanent migrants in the land of our birth. We remember the two questions  asked in Act 30 of 1950 passed in a ‘democratic’  Parliament of the old  Republic of South Africa:

What race are you?

What tribe are you?

We remember whom we couldn’t love and whom we couldn’t make love to.

We remember that the settler, made himself white, and the settler made us black; the former the sign of histories right of might;  the latter the mark of our lack. We remember the settler’s historical  fiction presented as fact, called terra nullis that told us that the land was empty. We are right to name these things, and to remember that we celebrate the end of absurdity.

We celebrate our  political equality. We celebrate our freedom to  recreate history. We celebrate that we can move as we please and speak as we please. We celebrate our universal citizenship. We celebrate creating one single state, with one single education system, with one single health care system, one single judicial system, one single finance and treasury and labour laws that protect us. We celebrate our gendered equality and our embrace of diverse sexualities. We celebrate electricity, and housing and grants. Yes, yes, we are getting there. Slowly.

But collectively we commiserate too. We are right to ask ourselves:

Why do we still have the highest inequality?

Why do we still have  explosive unemployment figures.?

Was all that we wanted to shop till we drop?

Was all that we wanted to create a public holiday so that some of us can play golf on rolling green lawns watered by the rivers of wrong?

How long do we think this game can on go on?

Will our new army of  private security guards, and parking guards save  us if that  day comes when the wretched of the earth say enough?

We are right to be  twice as angry and thrice as ashamed when we hear the word Marikana.  

This is not a time, my racist friends on the Right wing and my revolutionary comrades on the Left wing for the smug I told-you-so’s.  It is a time to ask questions. Because the things we commiserate don’t have straightforward answers. As the poets like Cesaire and Senghor told us so  long ago, the colonized person is not simply homo economicus. We are more than our belly’s. We are our creative energies, our fears and our desires too.

We are all of these things.  We are that which we celebrate and we are that which we commiserate. We are the generations who were scarred and contorted: those of us born unfree.  And we  are the beautiful ones: the born frees, the living proof of the two rights. We witness the creativity of some of  the beautiful ones, as they create their music, their art, their films. They have universality open to them on their terms.

We have come from a dark place. But to become that place not defined by its past we drill deeper still, down down, as Hugh Masekela says into the’ ‘belly of the earth, where we dig that mish-mash stuff’. We have to ask ourselves tough questions from inside our dilemma.

So yes, somehow we feel more divided on this April 27th  than we were in 1994. But in a different way. We are divided between celebration and commiseration.  But it is not a division of two separate things, of either this or that as some  among us think. Of a Manichean world of friends or enemies. Rather,  it is the two sides of a single political being,. A post-apartheid citizen that is  right to celebrate. And a post-apartheid  citizen that is right to have questions. .After all, we commiserate precisely because  we celebrate that now, 20 years on, we have earned the right to have rights. 

About Author

<p>Suren Pillay ( is a writer, photographer and academic, based at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape, in Cape Town, South Africa.</p>
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