Breaking divisive barriers

Faith Muthambi

Following our historic first democratic elections in 1994, South Africa, a nation that was once synonymous with rights violations, became the bastion of human rights.

Since then, we’ve celebrated Human Rights Day on March 21, along with Human Rights Month, to remind South Africans about the sacrifices that accompanied the struggle for liberation.

This year’s national celebration will be held in the birthplace of Steve Biko, Ginsberg in the Eastern Cape, where President Jacob Zuma will hand over the memorial gravesite of Biko to his family.

It’s been almost 40 years since Biko died, but his ideals and vision for our nation remain intact. Medgar Evers, a renowned civil rights activist, once said: “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.”

When Biko lay bloodied and broken on the cold floor of a police cell, the apartheid government thought they could kill a man and his ideals.

But they failed to realise that no amount of brutality or injustice could quell the relentless thirst of a nation for freedom.

Were Biko alive today, he would rejoice in our freedoms and our dedication to human rights.

But he would also undoubtedly reflect that our work is far from done. In one of his many notable quotes, Biko said: “Change the way people think and things will never be the same.”

Changing thoughts, along with entrenched ideas or stereotypes, is key to securing an inclusive and prosperous future for South Africans.

Biko knew instinctively that challenging damaging norms and conventions was crucial, without a change of thought we would remain imprisoned within our own minds.

There is strong room for an argument that South Africans are yet to fully escape our mental bonds.

After 23 years of democracy we still face the haunting reality of racism, prejudice, as well as economic and social injustices.

We are a fractured nation, but we are also a young nation still finding its feet.

We are faced with damaging legacies of our past that continue to shape our everyday reality.

The daily early-morning commute by millions who travel long distances from their homes to places of work is a consequence of apartheid spatial planning that sought to keep the majority away from towns, cities and centres of commerce and industry.

Similarly, the economy is still largely skewed in favour of a small minority, who have been aided and abetted by the benefit of entrenched monopolies and “old boys’ networks”.

These and other fault lines in our society must be addressed head-on by all of us.

Simply wishing them away is not the answer – we have to become the change we want to see.

Our national priority must be to ensure greater participation in the economy by historically disadvantaged individuals and communities.

The role of business in this endeavour cannot be emphasised enough.

When the shackles of apartheid came off in 1994, business and more especially big business was given room to grow and thrive.

Many South African companies have reaped the fruits of our freedom and have over the years grown into strong, multinational corporations.

As pillars in industry we encourage them to use their success to move the country forward as we create the nation we all envisioned at the start of democracy.

When South Africa benefits, we all stand to benefit.

Using the Freedom Charter and the Constitution as our guides, we must strive for a society free from discrimination, and one that caters for all within our midst.

These are the human rights and the freedom that Biko and countless others fought and died for.

It is up to us to continue their legacy by breaking down barriers that seek to divide us.

Muthambi is the minister of communications