When the African leaders formed the Organisation of African Union (OAU) in 1963 (now called the African Union), their vision was solid in driving an agenda of removing the shackles of bondage in our continent. They sought to promote unity and solidarity amongst African states. In the years to follow, we have seen country after country gaining their respective independence from the colonisers.
South Africa was one of the last countries to gain its freedom from the apartheid regime on 27 April 1994. Coincidentally, as we celebrate the Freedom Month, five other African countries also gained their respective independence in April. In the southern region, South Africa celebrates with Tanzania that gained its independence from Britain on 26 April 1964; Zimbabwe celebrated its Independence Day, also from Britain, on 18 April 1980.
April will therefore reverberate in the history of the nation and some of these African countries. South Africa celebrates its freedom and constitutional democracy ushered in by the first non-racial, democratic elections held on 27 April 1994. It marked the dawn of a new era where the rights and dignity of all is paramount.
Through the ballot, millions of South Africans proudly proclaimed their freedom and brought an end to over 400 years of colonialism, segregation, racial and economic subjugation, and oppressive white minority rule.
Most people in South Africa endured the nightmare of the apartheid system. It was the system that undermined the fundamental human rights and sought to dehumanise the majority of South Africans. People were forced to live in racially divided communities, which served to enforce a culture of oppression that was characterised by the unequal distribution of resources.
As we commemorate this historic occasion through the Freedom Month, we must remember that this freedom was not free. It was made possible by the sacrifices of thousands of patriots who confronted the tyranny of the apartheid government. Many people paid the ultimate price, and our leaders faced long prison sentences and constant police harassment for their defiance.
It was time of immense pain and suffering, and many activists were forced to go into exile in neighbouring countries or abroad. Building and strengthening this democracy can never be achieved in isolation. We must never forget or downplay the unyielding support and solidarity we received from our fellow African countries during those darkest hours, which contributed to the democracy we enjoy today.
The liberation movements at the time survived through the critical material support and solidarity provided by the frontline states. The then OAU had resolved to support the freedom fighters still in the trenches fighting their respective colonial powers.
However, as we gear up to celebrate the birth of our democracy and freedom, a dark cloud hangs over our nation. We recently witnessed despicable acts of hatred and violence towards our fellow African brothers and sisters. Such unlawful acts seek to undermine the rule of law and the basic human rights enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa of 1996. This should be condemned by all of us and our law enforcement agencies should spare no one who conducts such barbaric acts.
As we celebrate let us remind ourselves that the history and economic prosperity of South Africa is also anchored by the thousands of men who migrated from the neighbouring countries to work in the mines. They lived and mutually coexisted with fellow South African men, working in those mines under the most oppressive and exploitative conditions. They formed part of the formation of one of the progressive trade unions in 1982, the National Union of Mineworkers.
The so-called foreigners were part of the labour movement that contributed immensely to the Labour laws being enjoyed today. A considerable number of them subsequently married and built families here in South Africa. As such, South Africa is supposed to be a multicultural society that promotes interaction among people of different backgrounds. Its world-acclaimed Constitution protects the rights of all people living in the country – South Africans and foreigners alike.
One of the fundamental principles in South Africa’s foreign policy is its commitment to respect human rights. As we celebrate our freedom, we must never forget the journey we have travelled prior to 1994. South African government has made strong inroads into correcting the imbalances of the past, and has worked to ensure an equal society with equal opportunities across all areas.
Today, children enjoy the same opportunities and can learn in the same schools, and study in the same universities and colleges.
Most prominent among its achievements has been the promotion of a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa. Moreover, through its progressive Constitution, its citizens enjoy many rights, including the freedom of movement, the right to own property, the right not to be detained without trial, freedom of the press, religious freedom and freedom of sexual orientation and equal rights before the law.
Government has further made considerable progress in improving the material conditions of the citizens. Whilst we accept there has been missteps along the way, no one can dispute that millions of people across the country have houses, running water, sanitation and electricity.
These advances have brought hope to many South Africans, especially those still waiting to be served. Building on what has been achieved, government needs to continue transforming and driving social cohesion so as to ensure all citizens can enjoy the fruits of our democracy. This can be realized if all of us play our part in building the country. No one should be left behind. The country requires all of us to work together to make our country and continent better.
South Africa’s economy is interlinked with the African continent. Using multilateral and bilateral agreements, South Africa seeks to work with other countries to promote economic development of the region and the continent as a whole.
This week His Excellency President Cyril Ramaphosa will be hosting the President of Guinea Bissau, His Excellency General Umaro Embaló, on a State Visit to Pretoria. Earlier in the year, President Ramaphosa visited a number of western countries in Africa to cement bilateral relations with them.
South Africa’s trade relations with Guinea Bissau, which is one of the western countries in Africa rich in energy resources, started in 2013 and continues to grow strong. South Africa’s exports to Guinea Bissau are mainly in vehicles, vessels, aircrafts, machinery, plastics and rubber. Guinea Bissau also export to South Africa products such as coconuts, cashews and Brazil nuts.
Trade between the two countries has the potential to grow bigger and contribute in the in growing the economies of the two countries. It will continue towards achieving a better Africa that can be self-sufficient in years to come.
Happy Independence Month to the people of Senegal, Togo, Morocco, Tanzania and Zimbabwe! Let Africa continue to contribute towards a successful continent.
Ms Phumla Williams is the GCIS Director-General, and South African Spokesperson.