Memories of this day, exactly 26 years ago, will remain with us always. It was a moment when the new dawn was breaking. The air was fresh with the fragrance of our hard-won democracy. Millions of people across the country waited in long queues to cast their votes in the first democratic elections of South Africa. The years have rolled on, and yet we must pause and remember the historic and momentous moments as we stepped into our very own South African democratic world. Freedom Day gives us this opportunity to celebrate, reflect and honour the struggles that have enabled many of the freedoms we enjoy today.
As we celebrate Freedom Day today, we should again reflect on the strides we have made in transforming our country into an inclusive society, as articulated in our much-revered Constitution. Although we still have a way to go, the achievements we have made through the years since the democratic breakthrough of 1994 are apparent and palpable across many sectors of our society. We are reminded during this COVID-19 lockdown as we experience losses of our freedom that it is incumbent on each one of us to honour this day.
Our democracy is relatively young, but we continue to march forward, in our determination to defend this hard-earned liberty. Our conduct during the COVID-19 pandemic, when our people heeded the President’s call for a national lockdown, is a testimony to this. It shows that, together or apart, we can be as resolute as possible in overcoming obstacles, no matter how difficult they are. Additionally, the generosity shown by many in the public and private sector in contributing to the COVID-19 Solidarity Fund shows that we are indeed a winning nation that is capable of rising, even in the face of an unprecedented and often difficult to understand threat. The sacrifices of our staff and students also attest to this.
Despite our adversity in this time, we must not forget that the arrival of democracy has not eradicated all the problems of our nation. This is visible in South Africa’s deep-seated inequality, poverty and a burgeoning unemployment rate. As one of our liberation icons, Nelson Mandela, once said, “As long as many of our people still live in utter poverty, as long as children still live under plastic covers, as long as many of our people are still without jobs, no South African should rest and wallow in the joy of freedom.”
Yet, despite the challenges we still grapple with, we should appreciate that today is better than yesterday and that tomorrow will be better than today. The challenge for us all is to unite to create initiatives that will help create employment and empowerment. In this way, we will be contributing towards making our democracy succeed, and our country prosper. As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “in the truest sense, freedom cannot be bestowed; it must be achieved.”
Interestingly, the year 2020 marks 15 years since our university was born out of a merger of Randse Afrikaans Universiteit, Technikon Witwatersrand and Vista University. We can look back with a sense of pride at the strides we have made since we opened in the midsummer of 2005. Today, the University of Johannesburg is one of the most transformed universities in the country, boasting a progressive vision of global excellence and stature.
As we begin the second week of the second term, through online delivery of the academic programme, I am proud of the way our staff and students have embraced this innovative change. Today, the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation is due to chart the way forward regarding the higher education sector, following the President’s announcement of the relaxation of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions from Level 5 to Level 4. Further details regarding how our university will operate will be communicated soon.
I thank you, and please take care.
Professor Tshilidzi Marwala
Vice-Chancellor and Principal
University of Johannesburg