My Reflections on Freedom: The Life of the Indigenous and Marginalised on Freedom Day


Celebrating Freedom Day in a post-apartheid South Africa is a bittersweet occasion filled with moments of hope and despair. Twenty-eight years into our democracy and the most marginalised communities are still on the outskirts of major cities, and we are still fighting the same land dispossession and inequality that harkens back to chattel slavery in the Cape. Celebrating freedom is an impossible task for so many of us who are still fighting for basic human rights and acknowledgement – we are still outsiders on our own land.

Artwork by Lady Skollie, “We have come to take you home: A tribute to Diana Ferrus”, based on Ferrus’s 1998 poem to Khoisan ancestor Sarah Baartman who, in 1810, was taken from Cape Town to Europe to be put on public display.

Freedom Day: On the Outside Looking In

The promise of freedom which meant to liberate us, free us, return our resources and land to us has kept us in an endless cycle of poverty. What good is equality without equity? How do you abandon apartheid but maintain its spatial planning, Group Areas Act and intentional lack of resources for Black communities? How can we truly experience the joys of democracy while we remain on the outside looking in? For me, I can’t truly say that the feeling of freedom is something I have ever experienced. I cannot say that April 27 brings me a sense of celebration and pride. If anything, April 27 fills me with an intense feeling of despair and concern for how little the landscape of South Africa has changed in almost three decades. We are seeing the gap between the haves and the have-nots widen even more than before for a myriad of reasons ranging from corruption, a pandemic and unemployment to unresolved generational trauma relating to the mistreatment of our people.

In a country where “lack” is the best way to describe the experience of the majority, it is hard to imagine Freedom Day as a celebration. It is a reminder of the need to push for equality and equity. To demand tangible results and recourse for the people who are most affected, marginalised and oppressed. The experience of the average South African is a deep sense of loss and disconnection, displacement and stress. We dread extreme weather conditions because our homes will flood in the townships and summer will scorch us in our shacks. Travelling to the city centre each day for work means waking up in the early hours to catch a 4:30 a.m. bus that will take two hours to get you there. 

Our experiences are still those of deep sacrifice and suffering for basic understanding and reasonable accommodation. It means watching our counterparts in the workplace getting away with being late because of traffic, yet we are told to prioritise and wake up earlier to trek from the unwanted pieces of land each day. There is a painful disconnect from people within the same city who have no idea of the hardships and continue to expect the same level of performance from those of us who face a mountain of obstacles to reach the same destination. Most citizens are unable to ever reclaim their land or ever achieve enough economic opportunities to even consider buying a home in the areas we were forcibly removed from.

Freedom Day: A New Layer of Privilege

When faced with the inequalities in South Africa, it is a challenge to remember that we have a democratic republic. The democracy we fought for throughout apartheid became a new layer of privilege and benefit for some more than others. A way in which our oppressors are still in the same positions and some of our own have found means to surpass us economically by clawing their way to positions and roles that they continue to maintain and gatekeep. To many, democracy is not something we can celebrate because it is so far out of reach. The pinnacle of democracy is that the people govern. The people are given a voice and the people are empowered in making decisions that affect their day-to-day lives. These opportunities are not allotted to a large portion of the population whose voices are silenced and pushed further into the margins. The very systems that should encourage robust public debate, service delivery and open-ended communication and dialogue between the people and those in power are often disengaged, ignored or, worse, the officials use their public funding to drag the people into court for using their voices. 

How do we engage with a democracy that silences and ignores the plight of the underprivileged, that strengthens and emboldens the voice of those with power and authority? The Covid-19 pandemic has deepened the housing, land, health and overall socio-economic crises by causing larger gaps in various forms of service delivery and accountability from officials. The pandemic has highlighted the symptoms of a broken system that doesn’t work for those on the outskirts of society. It has shown us how disposable the lives of the poor are, how easy it is to retrench the most vulnerable employees in a global crisis, how simple it is to disengage on issues of land restoration when it is most necessary.

Freedom Day: Indigenous Land Up for Grabs

In the sphere of social justice relating to land and indigenous peoples, the concept of Freedom Month is non-existent while we continue to fight giant foreign corporations that ignore the people whose land they intend to occupy. What good is freedom when the City of Cape Town and Western Cape governments and officials are in the corner of developers and foreign corporations attempting to silence and use the courts to their advantage? The very people who the people have elected seem to have long turned their backs on us in favour of notoriety, power and personal gain. There is nothing democratic about going against the choice and will of marginalised indigenous people who are begging for our land to remain open for all, for our land to be regarded as sacred, for our heritage to be preserved and, above all, for our sacred spaces to not be privatised and commercialised for the gain of a few white men. 

What is there to celebrate on Freedom Day when we are up against the destruction of the site of sacred indigenous religious practice and a site that represents our freedom? The site of resistance where our ancestors defeated the Portuguese colonisers from taking a hold of us and the land in 1510. Land that is in the process of being graded as a potential national heritage site. The River Club area in Cape Town is and always will be the very tangible reminder of our resistance and the true sense of freedom. Destroying the land, infilling a river that we use for connection, sustenance and ancestral practice directly impacts our constitutional rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion, belief and opinion, equality and the right to cultural practice. Yet, this Freedom Day, the indigenous community will have to live with the knowledge that the decision to halt construction until further due processes are completed has been appealed by communities who have in the past stripped us of our human rights, land, voice and freedoms. We have to live with the knowledge that the government officials are encouraging the silencing of the people of the land. 

The actions of the government officials in going against their own experts and green-lighting this monstrosity are questionable at best and, moreover, leave multiple uncertainties about whether their behaviour is consistent with the South African Constitution. The Constitution clearly outlines that municipalities should conduct all business in an open matter and ensure that all parties are fairly represented and that the decision-making process should be democratic. How can this process of selling sacred land to the highest bidder, against the will of the people of the land, be considered democratic? 

Freedom Day: Fighting injustice. Still.

The battle of being on the right side of history, to honour our ancestors and to reconnect to the land that’s been stolen and sold from under us, is not easy. The unfortunate problem with fighting capitalism, anti-democratic processes, the continuous oppression and exclusion of indigenous people and the exploitation of land and resources is that it requires money and loads of it. Fighting against obscenely wealthy white men requires funding, resources, time and dedication. With their bottomless pockets, they always attempt to tire marginalised people by drowning us in paperwork and using the legal system against us. We have to gather an obscene amount of money to retain good legal counsel to fight for our democratic and constitutional rights.

We watch as foreign corporates with a trail of controversies relating to the mistreatment of workers and marginalised communities receive carte blanche while we remain in squalor in spaces that should not be considered fit for humans to live. We continue fighting for our land to be shared so we may all live in places that promote our rights to dignity, shelter, clean water and service delivery. The pain of having to fight in an arena made for white men by white men and upheld by white supremacy points to the larger issue of a severely unequal playing field. This arena disregards and erases the important ways in which we handle conflict and consultation processes. The violence of considering our ways as “lesser” continues the process of disconnecting us from our land and cultural practices. 

The main question I keep asking myself is: “Who decides who owns seas, mountains, rivers, masses of land?” I have yet to find an answer that makes sense and clears up this sense of entitlement, greed and disregard for others. The gall of neocolonisers promising jobs to pacify people whose most immediate needs are to survive and sustain their families is sheer manipulation and exploitation to the highest degree. The cruelty we face of having to dig up such significant land – a task we won’t find white people doing – the land of our ancestors and the representation of our resistance, freedom and resilience. They boast of jobs that put our community in the role of manual labour and that won’t last forever, or task others with guarding the property that has been built on sacred land. How does one prioritise one’s heritage and culture over feeding one’s family? This is a dystopian nightmare. 

It is known that the redevelopment will be on a floodplain and yet they have ploughed ahead. Our local government can hardly deal with issues of housing during extended periods of rain and strong winds in winter – issues that undoubtedly affect mostly people in informal settlements. How will we cope with a flood? Who will be most dispossessed once again? Where will the local government place people whose homes are affected? Do they see these concerns as inconsequential because of who will be affected, or is it only a “potential” risk and one they are willing to take at the expense of our lives and livelihoods? 

This is the hand of freedom and democracy we are dealt. In many ways, many of us feel that we are alone and will have to fight this on our own because our leaders have failed us. Our concerns are scoffed at, and the love of money speaks instead. The freedom and democracy we fought for have resulted in a few of our own being centred and, in exchange for the power and glory, they are caught in a never-ending cycle of mistreatment and acting as henchmen for these systems of oppression. It is the price they pay for being kings. 

This Freedom Day is sorrowful. It is a flashback to the past and history repeating itself. We are facing colonisation and erasure in a new and modern way – it is the exact same fight. This year is no different than centuries ago with our land and people being abused and our voices ignored. Our fight is long and will continue until we deal with spatial planning, land justice, environmental justice, and true respect and honouring of basic human rights. Our freedom is out of reach until informal settlements are no more and colonisers and capitalists are not given free rein. Ours is a fight for the past, for the present and for posterity.