The following speech was delivered on Friday by South Africa’s Democratic Alliance (DA) Leader, Mmusi Maimane (pictured), at the 62nd Liberal International Congress in Dakar, Senegal. Maimane received the 2018 African Freedom Award on behalf of the DA.
I am honoured to stand before you today to address Liberal International’s 62nd Congress. And I am deeply honoured to receive this year’s African Freedom Prize, on behalf of my party, the Democratic Alliance.
The DA and its predecessor parties have been fighting for a free and open society with opportunities for all for the past 60 years. Today we are the only party in South Africa trying to build such a society.
Recognition for this Freedom Award is only possible because the party I lead today stands on the shoulders of giants who came before me.
Leaders like Helen Suzman, who stood bravely for 13 long years as a lone voice of opposition to Apartheid legislation in a hostile parliament.
Leaders like Tony Leon who, at the dawn of our democracy, chose opposition instead of position – knowing that his contribution to his country would be greater outside the Government of Unity than inside it.
Leaders like Helen Zille, whose running of the flagship Western Cape Province continues to set a benchmark in clean, accountable governance unmatched by anyone.
On behalf of the DA, I extend my heartfelt appreciation for this prestigious recognition.
There is a profound symbolism to receiving this award here in Senegal. Not far from here is the island of Goree where Africans were sold as slaves. It is a place where so many people lost their freedom.
When they were sold into this system, they were no longer seen as human – they became mere commodities. Stripped of their own freedom, they built another economy while they suffered in hunger and poverty.
They were prisoners in the land of liberty and they lost the dignity of being human – of being fathers, wives, daughters and sons.
Our story in Africa has been a recycling of oppressive regimes, one after the other, in search of resources that can be exported to enhance the freedoms of others. Back then it was human capital and today it is our mineral resources.
These are still difficult times on this continent. We are rich in resources, but hungry for food and development. We still attract aid ahead of trade. We have leaders who are rulers of the law rather than ruled by the law.
Some still speak of the dark continent. But it is up to us to disprove this. We must rewrite Africa’s story.
In many ways the pursuit of African freedom is the restoration of the dignity of being an African.
Almost a year ago, in Johannesburg, I handed this same Freedom Award to my brother, Hakainde Hichilema from Zambia’s United Party for National Development.
He is a man who has been arrested, detained and tortured for daring to stand up to an authoritarian government.
A man who now faces the real prospects of being re-arrested as his government tries to stifle multi-party democracy and shut down dissenting voices.
What Hichilema is going through in Zambia is a constant reminder to us that freedom on this continent is still far from won for many of its people.
To receive the same award as someone who has had to endure so much fighting for his country’s democratic and economic freedom is indeed an honour.
Ladies and gentlemen, what is freedom?
One definition, given in the Oxford dictionary, describes freedom as “the power of self-determination; the quality of being independent of fate or necessity.”
In other words, freedom is being able to live a life of your own choosing. A life not restricted or determined by the circumstances of your birth.
It has many other definitions too, but that is the one I want to focus on.
My country, South Africa, can tell you a thing or two about freedom. Ours was one of the longest and most well-documented struggles for freedom in recent history.
The culmination of our struggle, which brought to an end the Apartheid era and three centuries of colonial rule, was meant to have delivered our freedom.
Until then, our people had been imprisoned in their own country. They were confined to homelands, made to carry passbooks, made to work for exploitative wages.
They were told they were second-class citizens, told they couldn’t vote, couldn’t own property, weren’t entitled to a decent education.
They were told where they could live, walk and sit. There were rules about whom they could love and marry.
They were denied all the liberties we take for granted today. And because of this, the concept of freedom permeated the language and symbolism of the struggle.
On 26 June 1955, an alliance of struggle organisations adopted the Freedom Charter in Kliptown, Johannesburg. This historic document would become the platform for a non-racial South Africa with equal opportunities for all.
In the years that followed, the slogan “Freedom in our Lifetime” would become a rallying cry of the struggle against an unjust and oppressive regime.
And when millions of South Africans lined up to vote on 27 April 1994 in our first ever democratic election, we turned this day into a national holiday and called it Freedom Day.
People wrote songs and poems about our hard-fought freedom, and the world celebrated along with us. But in truth, these celebrations were premature.
While April 1994 was a powerful moment that symbolised our transition from a brutal minority regime to a fully-fledged democracy, it didn’t bring about real freedom.
Our people might have won the right to vote, but they were still shackled by extreme poverty and inequality.
Going back to that definition of freedom, they were not yet “independent of fate or necessity”. They were not free to pursue their dreams and live a life they value.
Real freedom – economic freedom – did not follow our symbolic freedom.
Nelson Mandela recognised this right at the start of our democracy when he said: “The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed.”
Yes, there was progress for a while. More houses and schools were built after 1994. More areas were connected to the electricity and water grids. More hospitals and clinics were opened.
But the important numbers that would indicate true freedom – the rate of poverty and the rate of unemployment – continued to move in the wrong direction.
Today, almost quarter of a century into our democracy, our statistics on poverty and unemployment make for shameful reading.
More than half our people live below the poverty line.
2.3 million children in South Africa live in households that reported child hunger last year.
Almost 10 million South Africans cannot find work.
We are the country with the highest youth unemployment in the world.
That’s not freedom. That’s the opposite of freedom.
Our situation in South Africa is not unique. We have been following in the footsteps of so many post-colonial nations in Africa.
It’s the same pattern: First comes the era of colonial rule – unjust and exploitative. Then comes independence along with a new, democratically elected government. And then follows years, even decades, of oppression by the very same people who were meant to deliver freedom.
This is the story of our continent: liberation movements that fail in their role as governing parties.
We have seen, time and time again, the liberators come to power amid fanfares of revolution, only to bow to the temptations of patronage and corruption.
We have seen a litany of Big Man Presidents amassing wealth on a scale unimaginable to ordinary citizens.
We have seen decades of one-party rule, across the length and breadth of our continent, obliterate any sense of accountability to the people.
What we’ve also seen, and continue to see, is the emergence of so-called opposition parties from within the ranks of the ruling party – people who break away to form new parties when they no longer enjoy access to resources.
We must not fool ourselves into thinking this is real opposition. There is no contestation of ideas here. It is simply a race to resources.
Whether it’s a breakaway party, or one faction replacing another within a ruling party, voters are tricked into believing that this represents a new dawn for the country.
But this is simply not true. It is still the same party with the same ideology and the same policies. All that has happened is that a new faction now gets to decide who benefits from the state machinery, and who gets prosecuted.
Real democracy is when you swap parties, not factions. And for this to happen, we in this room have to become a lot better at crafting and explaining liberal solutions.
Because the alternative is what we’re seeing in South Africa right now. Twenty-four years of various factions of ANC government has been terrible for South Africa’s democracy, its economy and its people.
In this time, we became a nation of economic insiders and outsiders. On the inside: all those with the right contacts, the right party membership and the right family connections. And on the outside: everyone else.
With every passing year, the gap between the insiders and the outsiders grew wider. Soon “freedom in our lifetime” seemed like a distant dream for millions of our people.
This was not meant to be our story. We were the miracle democracy – the so-called Rainbow Nation. Ours was meant to be a story of overcoming the odds and building a prosperous and shared post-Apartheid society.
But, as is the case with so many liberation movement-turned-governing-parties, our government was simply not up to the task.
The lived reality of most of our people did not change. For millions of South Africans who find themselves locked out of the economy and locked out of opportunities, Apartheid never ended. Its legacy still dominates their lives every day.
The question many people ask me is: Why?
Why was a government returned to power, again and again, despite clearly failing in its duty to its people?
The answer lies in the emotive power of the struggle narrative. For years the ANC could overcome their failure as a government by reminding people of the other ANC – the one that spearheaded the struggle all those years ago.
By constantly re-living the past and glorifying past heroes, they effectively masked their systemic corruption and their failed policies.
But even that couldn’t last forever, as people’s mounting anger grew stronger than their historical allegiances. And so the ANC today has turned to the only avenue left to cling to power: Populism.
Frightened by the prospect of losing support, they have chosen to follow a radical fringe party down a populist dead-end ahead of our elections next year.
Land expropriation, free tertiary education and the nationalisation of key sectors like Healthcare, the Reserve Bank and ICT – these are policies that will kill our economy, bankrupt our state and drive even more people to poverty and unemployment.
They are the same failed populist policies that ruined countries like Zimbabwe and Venezuela, but even this recent evidence has not stopped the ANC from setting off down the same road.
That cannot be the future of my country. I cannot stand by and watch as the dream of freedom is crushed for millions of people simply in order to save the ANC.
If we’re going to speak about the pursuit of freedom here in Africa, we need to reflect on the words of Coretta Scott King: “Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.”
The struggle for real freedom for our people is far from over. That is why my party, the Democratic Alliance, exists.
That is why we get up and go to work every day. That’s what we fight for. Real economic freedom in our lifetime.
This year marks the centenary of the birth of Nelson Mandela – a man whose life came to symbolise the transition from colonialism to liberation. He recognised that Apartheid, just like slavery, was a system that could be broken.
Nelson Mandela is a hero to me, and many others, not only because he liberated Africans, but also because he helped to liberate the oppressors. He was that rare leader who could free both the jailed and the jailer and unite them in a new mission.
This is, in a sense, what the DA is trying to achieve. To build a party of all races who recognise the injustice of our past, but who know that our only hope of breaking down the system of economic exclusion is if we unite and pool our efforts.
And here, again, we can look to the Senegalese for inspiration. For a country that is over 90% Muslim, to have elected a Christian President as their first democratic leader shows what is possible when values are placed ahead of religion, race or language.
In South Africa, it is only the Democratic Alliance that is pushing for such a society. No other party is even trying, and they aren’t trying because it is hard.
Our project, in the DA, is unprecedented. We’re trying to build a strong centre – a political home for all South Africans, regardless of race or language.
We’re offering voters the option of an alternative government that is based on shared values rather than shared race or ethnicity. And, in our historical context, this is very difficult.
We’re asking South Africans to look beyond their differences and their historical allegiances, and to work together to rebuild our country.
We are trying to strengthen our democratic institutions like our judiciary, our free press and our bodies of investigation and prosecution, while others have done all they can to subvert them.
We are trying to protect our Constitution and the rights contained therein, while others are doing their best to chip away at it.
We are trying to break down the walls between the economic insiders and outsiders – walls that were built through years and years of patronage politics.
We are trying to build a free and open society with opportunities for all – opportunities that arise from enterprise, trade, increased investment and entrepreneurship.
A society that can only be realised in a liberal democracy with a market economy, a capable state, a zero tolerance for corruption and a Constitution that guarantees its people their rights, including the right to own property.
A society that rejects nationalism, racism, cronyism and populism.
This is the road we have chosen. And it is a far harder road to travel than the one chosen by the populists. But it is our only hope.
Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot do this alone. And neither can any of you.
Our success in South Africa, and your success in your countries, will require many allies. Together, we can rewrite Africa’s story.
If our continent is to overcome centuries of exploitation and misrule and claim its rightful place in the global economy, it will be because our liberal ideas and our liberal values prevailed.
We can’t wait for people to come over to our way of thinking. We must go out and make the case for a prosperous Africa we want to see. And we must simply ensure that we paint a more compelling picture than our opponents are doing.
Populists win because they offer dangerous answers to legitimate questions. They don’t make up these questions. They latch onto real issues that aren’t being answered well enough by anyone else.
They recognise the importance of economic inequality to further advance their message.
And they get away with preying on people’s fear, anger and exclusion because there seems to be no compelling alternative.
We cannot allow that to happen. We must join those conversations – no matter how difficult they may be – and ours must simply be better answers.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We’re not fighting separate battles across Africa. Ours is a common goal that becomes more and more achievable with every ally that joins us.
Just as my party is the last line of defence against the creep of populism and the tyranny of corruption in South Africa, you, as the defenders of liberal values in your own countries are our continent’s hope.
While the old guard is still turned to the past, we are the ones facing in the right direction.
Africa does not need backward looking leaders or parties that were once glorious. We need people and parties who can imagine Africa’s future and potential.
We don’t need politicians who are only in it for themselves – big, self-important men who see government as a way of becoming rich. We need selfless leaders who understand what it means to serve.
We don’t need populists who prey on people’s anger, fear and frustration. We need enlightened and pragmatic leaders – protectors of our constitutions and defenders of human rights.
We don’t need nationalists and racists who try to use our differences to pit us against each other. We need men and women from all walks of life whose only goal is to unite us as a people and fight for everyone’s future.
We need an Africa where trade and venture capital replace aid and charity.
We need an Africa that invests in the infrastructure that will allow us to trade better among ourselves, so that goods don’t take an eternity to reach our neighbours. Yes, we still need European and Asian markets, but we must use the huge potential at our own doorstep.
We need an Africa where basic human rights are sacrosanct. An Africa with strong institutions that will relegate dictators like Omar al-Bashir to history.
I know there is a new generation of leaders in Africa. I see many of them here in this room. This is our time to stand up and make a difference.
The struggle for independence has come and gone. Ours is the next struggle. We are the generation that must liberate Africa from its liberators.
If the 20th Century was the century of African independence, then the 21st Century must surely be the century in which Africa gains its freedom.