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Address by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Freedom Day, Union Buildings, Tshwane

Programme Director,
Deputy President Shipokosa Paul Mashatile,
Former President Thabo Mbeki,
Ministers and Deputy Ministers,
Justices of the Constitutional Court and Supreme Court of Appeal,
Judges-President and members of the judiciary,
Members of Parliament,
Representatives of the Chapter Nine institutions,
Traditional, faith-based and community leaders present,
Distinguished Guests,

Fellow South Africans, 

Sanibonani. Molweni. Goeie môre. Dumelang. Kgotsong. Lotjhani. Ndi matsheloni. Nhlekanhi. Good morning. 

Exactly thirty years ago on this day, freedom’s bell rang across our great land. 

It rang in every city, every town and every village. 

It could be heard in Musina and Thohoyandou in the furthest reaches of the north; in the vast expanses of the Kalahari, the Karoo and the Richtersveld; Komatipoort, Ermelo, Tsitsikamma, Bhisho, Mthatha, Ulundi, Durban and Manguzi on the Eastern Seaboard; in Saldanha, Cape Town and Klein See on the Western Seaboard of South Africa

The sound of freedom rang in Soweto, in Sharpeville, Soshanguve, Evaton, Botshabelo, Umlazi, Khayelitsha, Mitchell’s Plain and Mangaung. 

It rang in Kliptown, where the Congress of the People met in 1955 to lay out the vision for a new, free South Africa. 

It rang here at the Union Buildings, a place that had been a symbol of power and oppression for more than a hundred years. 

On that day, as we cast our votes for the first time, a great heaviness lifted from our shoulders. 

Our shackles had been cast off. The weight of centuries of oppression was no longer holding us down. 

Even though our backs bore scars of the cruel lashes of those who had whipped and subjected us for more than three hundred years, on that day, as a united people, we stood tall. 

We watched as the flag of the new South Africa was hoisted for the first time. 

Today, thirty years later, we gather as a united people of all races at the same Union Building that once symbolised our pain and oppression. 

As we celebrate today, we recall and honour all those who fought for justice, peace and freedom in our land. 

We remember the heroes and heroines whose actions made it possible for us to gather here today as a free people. 

On this day, we fondly remember Nelson Mandela, our first democratically elected president and the father of our democracy.

In his memory we will continue to work tirelessly to achieve the democratic ideals to which he and many other heroes and heroines dedicated their lives.

Few days in the life of our nation can compare to that day, when freedom was born. 

South Africa changed forever. It signaled a new chapter in the history of our nation, a moment that resonated across Africa and across the world. 

After casting his ballot President Nelson Mandela described that day as the beginning of a new era – moving from pessimism and division to nation-building, reconciliation and hope. 

The advent of democracy in 1994 ushered in a constitutional order premised on equality, freedom and human rights for all. 

On that day, the dignity of all the people of South Africa was restored. 

Over the course of three centuries, the dignity of the black inhabitants of this land had been deliberately and cruelly denied, first by colonialism and then by apartheid. 

Millions of black South Africans – African, coloured and Indian – were at the mercy of laws and practices that were enforced to serve the interests of a white minority.

Their land was taken, their labour was exploited, their prospects were stunted.

Running like a malevolent thread through these many forms of oppression was patriarchy, which placed upon black women the greatest burden.

Apartheid was an ideology and a system aimed at controlling every aspect of people’s lives. It sought to humiliate and degrade.

That we have been able to cast off the yoke of oppression and build a new nation rooted in equality and human rights is among the greatest feats of modern history. 

The 27th of April 1994 was a victory for non-racialism, for non-sexism, for human dignity and progress. Not just in South Africa, but everywhere. 

It was a victory for reconciliation. 

The democratic breakthrough was as much about liberating black South Africans from apartheid as it was about freeing white South Africans from their prejudice and fear. 

As President Nelson Mandela said, the system of apartheid robbed both the oppressed and the oppressor alike of their humanity. 

Before the 27th of April 1994 many believed our country would descend into a race war. Many believed that given how deep the wounds of mistrust were, that we would turn against each other. 

And yet we did not do so. Together, we worked hard and with purpose to bring about a reconciliation between the races. 

We must never let our spirits be dampened by detractors, whether they are abroad or in our own country, who want to diminish what we achieved in 1994 and in the years that have followed. 

South Africa’s democracy is young. Most of the world’s most established democracies are over a hundred years old. 

The progress that has been made in a relatively short period of thirty years is something of which we can and should all be proud. 

In his great work Revolution of the Aged, the poet Njabulo Ndebele writes: 

“It is a blind progeny that acts without indebtedness to the past.” 

It is only those who willfully will not see, who shut their eyes to progress, who will deny that South Africa today is an infinitely better place than it was thirty years ago. 

We have established a society founded on the rule of law and the premise of equality before the law.

We have built democratic institutions and have rid our statute books of racist and sexist apartheid laws.

As the democratic state we have worked to restore the dignity of all the South African people, particularly the dispossessed, the marginalised and the vulnerable. 

Over the past thirty years we have sought to implement policies and programmes that advance equality and human dignity in areas like economic empowerment, education, health care, social support and the provision of basic services. 

During apartheid, the policies, programmes and services of the state had a strict racial bias and hierarchy.

Our task over the last 30 years has been to bridge the huge divides of wealth and opportunity in our country – between black and white, between men and women, between urban and rural dwellers.

We have done so not only to correct the injustices of the past, but also so that we may realise the full potential of an economy in which every person has a stake and in which every person has the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution.

Although there have been setbacks, although we have faced challenges both beyond our borders and at home, our economy has tripled in size since 1994.

While unemployment still remains our greatest and most pressing challenge, the number of South Africans in employment increased from eight million in 1994 to over 16.7 million now.

Through affirmative action, broad-based black economic empowerment, worker share ownership programmes and progressive labour laws, we have brought about transformative change in South Africa’s boardrooms, in workplaces and on the shopfloor. 

In South Africa today, more than half a million workers are part-owners of the companies they work for. This is about one in every 20 workers in the formal private sector.

The proportion of black people in senior management position in both government and business has increased many times over.

We still have a long way to go before we can declare that all South Africans do indeed share in the wealth of the country. But we have made much progress, and we are determined to do much more.

Today, our social development system benefits all, providing vital support to the poor and vulnerable, women and children.

The democratic state has, through its health care programmes, brought down child mortality, improved life expectancy and made important strides towards overcoming the HIV/Aids pandemic.

Working together, we have opened the doors of learning and culture.

We have invested in improving and building new schools, colleges and and two new universities. We have vastly increased the number of matriculants, graduates and young skilled people.

Although we have much further to go, we have worked to ensure that poverty is no barrier to a decent education.

We have introduced no-fee schools and the school feeding programme. We have expanded funding to students from poor and working class families and are now focused on early childhood development.

By working together, we have broken down many of the barriers of race and gender, ensuring that all parts of society better reflect South Africa’s diverse population.

We see this in our classrooms and places of higher learning, in government, in our Parliament, in our judiciary, in our security services and in our defence force.

We see the diversity of South Africa in our sports associations and religious groups, in our public spaces and businesses, at our embassies and on our trade missions.

In South Africa today, our Bill of Rights is the foundation for a society rooted in equality regardless of race, gender, sex or sexual orientation.

Women in South Africa today enjoy full equality before the law. 

As a society, we have made significant advances in giving effect to the rights of women. We have worked together to ensure that women are empowered in the home, in communities, in society and in the economy.

The women of South Africa have stood up for themselves. 

The have fought for equal representation in positions of responsibility in the state, in academia, in business, in sport, in culture.

Close to half of the Members of Parliament, judges and magistrates are women. More than 60 per cent of public servants are women.

In South Africa today, girls learn alongside boys in our primary and secondary schools and receive equal education.

Last year, more females passed the matric exams and got more distinctions than their male counterparts. There are currently more female students enrolled at institutions of higher learning than males.

In working to affirm the dignity of all South Africans, we have recognised the different ways in which people are discriminated against and oppressed.

South Africa is a beacon of hope for the protections it affords to the LGBTQI+ community. Although we have much further to go, we have worked to overcome prejudice throughout society.

We have sought to affirm the rights and improve the circumstances of persons with disabilities. 

We are still working to remove the barriers that prevent persons with disabilties from realising their full potential and living lives of comfort, security and material well-being.

Centuries of colonialism and apartheid dispossessed black people of their most basic possession: the land. 

Since the advent of democracy, we have pursued land reform, distributing millions of hectares of land to those who had been forcibly dispossessed and providing security of tenure to many others who had lived on the land for generations.

We have built houses, clinics, hospitals, roads and bridges.

We have brought electricity, water and sanitation into millions of homes.

All those who cast their vote for a better South Africa in 1994 laid the foundation for a democracy that enhanced South Africa’s standing in the international community and opened up opportunities for engagement and cooperation. 

As a democratic country, the new South Africa was able to build alliances, negotiate trade agreements and participate in international organisations to advance the interests of its people. 

South Africa is an important voice on the world stage and an active member of the African Union. 

We continue to pursue a foreign policy that is premised on social justice, in pursuit of peace and a just world order, and that advances the African Agenda.

Fellow South Africans,

To those born after 1994, the impact and meaning of our democracy is very different to those who lived during apartheid.

And yet, apartheid’s legacy continues to define the choices and opportunities of so many South Africans.

We know that despite our achievements, South Africa remains a highly unequal society. 

Our people confront every day the apartheid legacy of unemployment, poverty and underdevelopment.

Crime, especially crimes of violence against women and children, are a scourge in our communities. 

Despite great progress, many households do not have electricity or clean water. There are still many families that go hungry.

There is a huge divide between the rich and the poor.

We see this divide in access to health care, in access to safe transport and proximity to services and work opportunities.

At times, it seems that these challenges threaten to undermine the achievements we have made over the past thirty years. 

And yet we know that if we work together, if we harness the same spirit of unity that we did in 1994, we will surely overcome them. 

History shows us that by working together in pursuit of a common goal, we will succeed.

Our journey since 1994 has proved that we are a nation of optimism, resilience and hope. 

We believe in a better tomorrow and it is within our hands to shape our collective destiny. 

It is within our hands to rebuild South Africa and make it a place of equal opportunity and shared prosperity where no-one is left behind.

At his inauguration here at the Union Buildings on the 10th of May 1994, President Nelson Mandela spoke of the realisation of our democratic breakthrough.

He said that: “The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement!”

Let us stand together, united in purpose, to build a future where the promise of freedom rings true for every single South African.

Let freedom reign.

May God bless South Africa and protect her people. 

I thank you.

 Union Building