April 22, 2020


April 27 marked national Freedom Day when, in 1994, South Africans cast their votes – black people for the first time – to apply their democratic right. In the true spirit of triumph over apartheid’s oppressive regime, it must have been a time when celebrating out on the streets was nothing out of the ordinary. When long and snaky queues were a reflection of a hard-earned right being fully utilised.

It is important to reflect on our rich history in order for us to map a way forward.

Today, we find ourselves under difficult circumstances that require us to respond differently than 1994, in a bid to help save lives. Our history, painful as it may be, reminds us that our freedom came at a great cost. Where lives were lost, families torn apart and human dignity trampled upon on the basis of race.

Some, like Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni, Walter Sisulu, Shirish Nanabhai, Laloo Chiba and several others endured heavy prison sentences, yet remarkably never lost hope. Back home, those that were left behind took up different struggles of their own, ensuring that the family fires were kept burning and were often left to pick up the pieces.

Parallel to freedom is the notion of responsibility. Today, through social solidarity, we are called upon to apply a deeper sense of responsibility and play our part in the fight against the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Through education and an awareness of South Africa’s liberation history, freedom is a gift I have come to treasure the most from the generations before us. Defiantly, I learned to find my own voice and speak out on tokenism within the African Union (AU) when that position could have best served the tens and thousands of young people within our continent.

Like those who took a bold stand against oppression, there was a realisation that I too could speak out without fear as long as it was my truth. As young South Africans, we enjoy the freedom to associate with an array of structures or individuals that share our common views and values. These include civil society organisations such as the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, which has groomed me and several young people, igniting in us an appreciation for our history, but also challenging us to do and act better as the bare minimum to our democracy.

This is so much easier in comparison to other countries where you are forbidden from using words such as transgender or even speaking out against the government of the day where a lack of accountability and transparency rule.

As a millennial or close to a born-free, lockdown is something unimaginable, as is the likes of having the army and police patrolling. This is something our mind is not conditioned to.

Victims of gender-based violence around this time must surely have it hard as their freedom is curtailed even further having no choice but to be trapped with abusive partners.

In terms of equality, the economic blow is immediately felt by informal workers and the poor. Soon the middle class could also face further strain, being pushed into poverty. Economically the impact of the virus could have dire consequences for the majority of the population with only the very wealth probably being spared in the months to come.

Offering a gender lens to equality, women now face a greater burden of unpaid household chores, childcare, a disruption of sexual and reproductive health services and being in lower-paid, less stable jobs with the possibility of facing an even greater strain.

On accountability, we must commend the transparency and adaptability of our government where there has been a coordination between Cabinet ministries such as health, education, social development, transport, and water and sanitation.

While all resources will be directed towards tackling COVID-19, the challenge of strengthening the health care system should not fall off the agenda. We need to do better in terms of quality, accessibility, affordability and how practitioners respond with dignity to patients and their overall needs. Iif not, we will never be ready to weather any arising pandemic or outbreak.

Whilst we are deprived of social contact around this time, let us not forget to check up on one another, more so the elderly and those in need. Let us be driven by a sense of responsibility, and adhere to lockdown regulations and flatten the COVID-19 curve.

Let us be kinder and compassionate towards our essential workers, who continue to keep the wheels moving in these difficult times.

Whether it is checking in on one another through online or social media platforms, or showing acts of kindness through supporting food security initiatives, we all have a responsibility to help stop the spread of the invisible enemy that has shaken the globe.

Dr Shakira Choonara is a board member at the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and the 2017 Woman of the Year in Health. She is also an alumni of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation’s Youth Leadership Programme.

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