Freedom brings responsibility

As we move from Human Rights Month in March to Freedom Month in April, we must remember that South Africa’s hard-won democracy and the rights it gives us all must be used to fight intolerance and foster a cohesive society, writes Brand South Africa CEO Miller Matola.

kids-articleSouth Africa is often cited as a praiseworthy example of the resilience of the human spirit and the power to rebuild a nation fragmented by a tortuous history. (Image: GCIS)

MillerMatola Brand South Africa CEO Miller Matola

As South Africa enters its 21st year of democracy in 2015, we also mark 60 years since the adoption of the Freedom Charter in Kliptown on 26 June 1955. The charter was one of the founding documents of our democracy, demanding inclusivity with its opening words: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it.” This set the vision for a unified, egalitarian, free and equal South Africa.

Sixty years later, we can claim to live in a free and democratic society. We certainly have challenges, but are essentially a free people living in a country that belongs to all.

Democracy is essential to preserving a culture of human rights. This becomes pertinent in the light of recent turbulent events in our country. What is important is to not forget those who laid their lives down so we could proclaim: “Free at last.”

South Africa has a brutal history. But that history has bequeathed a rich and glorious democracy to the people of our country. Our Constitution and its Bill of Rights are often described as among the most progressive in the world – a not insignificant accolade for a democracy as young as ours.

But democracy is complex, and with our strong human rights culture comes a weight of responsibility.

Twenty-one years on, democracy is firmly entrenched in South Africa. We have a common understanding of what democracy means, and the rights it gives us.

We must now ask how we should express these democratic freedoms. What is our individual and collective obligation to ensure our freedoms are responsibly exercised?

South Africa is often cited as a praiseworthy example of the resilience of the human spirit and the power to rebuild a nation fragmented by a tortuous history. The nation-building project, though, is long: it requires many years and a constant re-evaluation of how far we have come.

We should not lose the remarkable qualities of our nationhood as we seek to express our democratic freedoms. South Africa, even after 20 years of democracy, remains a country in transition. Ours is a living democracy, one being forged again in the face of new realities.

With rights come responsibilities. It is up to every South African citizen to ensure that we respect one another’s rights. Having freedom of speech, for example, does not mean we have the right to defame, insult or hurt others.

I have often felt that South Africa’s democracy and human rights culture can be succinctly described by the term “Ubuntu.” This uniquely South African concept, loosely translated, means “humanness”, and describes the reality that we are who we are because of the efforts of those who have come before us. If all South Africans displayed Ubuntu in our interactions with each another we would be able to fight intolerance and foster social cohesion.

The history of our country makes it the responsibility of us to work to honour and respect our democracy and strengthen our culture of human rights.

As Nelson Mandela, the founding father of our democracy, said at his inauguration: “The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement.” We have a responsibility to work hard to safeguard our democracy – our hard-won freedom and the inherent respect for the human rights of others – that is the cornerstone of our progressive constitution. Our past, our future and the generations to follow deserve to inherit a culture where our diversity is indeed our greatest asset.

Miller Matola is CEO of Brand South Africa. Follow on @MillerMatola.