Are we all really free?

Sarah Emily Duff
Sarah Emily Duff

By Sarah Emily Duff

As South Africa approaches Freedom Day this year, I wonder if it is worth celebrating our eighteen years of democracy.

As Richard Mduli, alleged to be implicated in the killing of his partner’s lover and embroiled in a nepotism scandal, was reappointed as South Africa’s crime intelligence boss; as the Secrecy and Spy Bills, both of which will seriously undermine the institutions which uphold our democracy, edge closer towards being passed into law; and as thousands of South Africans remain without housing, water, electricity, and access to basic health care and education, what is there to cheer about?

And then last week news of the gang rape of an intellectually disabled seventeen year-old girl in Soweto, surfaced. The video that her attackers made of the rape – which depicts their faces and her desperate cries for help – went viral on the internet. The rape and the subsequent popularity of the video are horrifying enough on their own, but it also emerged that this was not the first time that she had been raped, and that this most recent assault occurred almost a month ago. It was only as the result of an intervention launched by the Daily Sun that her perpetrators were arrested. The young woman had been missing since the attack – and was discovered, confused and disoriented, living with a man twice her age.

Nobody saw fit to report her missing; her sexual assaults went uninvestigated; and it seems that none of the hundreds, or even thousands, of people who saw the video of her rape thought to pass it on to the police – let alone object to its circulation on the web.

With events as appalling as these, we are tempted, often, to believe that they are unique to us: to our society and to our time. But as we saw this week, when British users of Twitter took revenge on the young woman raped by the footballer Ched Evans by naming her publicly, although the context in which these two assaults differed wildly – one in a swish hotel room, the other in deprived Bramfischerville – attitudes towards sexual violence in Britain and South Africa are fairly similar.

Also, there is ample evidence to suggest that South Africa has a long history of violence against women. What happened in Soweto a month ago was unique neither to South Africa, nor to the early twenty-first century.

I take no comfort in that. But what gives me hope is that gender equality is ensured by our Bill of Rights, the cornerstone of our Constitution. As the United States seems to have declared war on women’s reproductive rights, and as attacks have been launched on women’s right to abortion in the UK, I have felt strangely proud of my government. Here, women’s right to access contraception and abortion are non-issues, at least politically.

I know that if I were ever to find myself in the position where I had to choose to have an abortion, I would able to undergo the procedure safely and legally. And this, really, is the issue: we have a magnificent Constitution – truly, it is one of the most amazing documents ever written – but in a society as unequal as ours, and where the provision of basic services is so poor, it may as well not exist for the majority of South Africans.

A woman living in Bramfischerville, Mannenberg, or Diepsloot, does not have the same ability to exercise her rights as I do: I have medical aid and can afford to go to a private hospital; she is at the tender mercies of her government hospital, its overworked and underpaid staff, and its poor supplies of clean bed linen, food, and medicine.

I am free. She is not.

It’s for this reason that I believe for Freedom Day – for the rights enshrined in our Constitution – to be meaningful for most South Africans, our government must root out corruption and improve service delivery. These are difficult, painful, and not particularly media-friendly activities – not as grand as announcing new legislation, for instance – but without good governance, we cannot ensure that all South Africans are truly free and equal.


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