This month, South Africa will commemorate 20 years of democracy.
You’ll be surprised to know that it took me a while to write that sentence. I kept getting stuck at word six: ‘commemorate’ or ‘celebrate’?
It seems so silly but I’m not the only one struggling with the word ‘celebrate’ this month.
When Daily Maverick columnist Onkgopotse Tabane wrote an article giving twenty reasons to celebrate twenty years of democracy, the response he got from many readers was, “Celebrate? What’s there to celebrate?”
Many people aren’t feeling in the celebratory mood for good reason. The majority of black South Africans haven’t enjoyed the economic and social freedom they were promised twenty years ago. Racial divides still run strong and deep. Corruption in government is endemic.
And I’m sure we can all add to this list.
So what is there to celebrate?
The same question might be asked by a non-believer of Christmas. As we gather to joyfully celebrate Christ’s birth, someone could look in and ask, “What are you celebrating? A Saviour? Have you seen the mess the world is in?” And walk off thinking we’re a bunch of nutters.
But we know there’s more to the story than meets the eye.
In Michael’s own words: “Throughout South Africa in the years 1991 to 1994 prayer intensified. A great cry to God seemed to be coming from the nation that He should act and intervene to help us for we could not deliver ourselves.” (A Witness For Ever)
And he did intervene, miraculously.
South Africa came through a multi-racial election without civil war or rampant violence. Even secular observers viewed this as a miracle when, at a similar time, over 100, 000 people were “ethnically cleansed” in the Bosnian War, and an estimated one million people were murdered in clashes between rival tribes in the Rwandan Genocide.
How did we do it?
As Anita Kromberg from Diakonia Council of Churches put it, “[Our miracle was] the product not only of our prayers and groaning, but also of very hard work by many different people.” The miracle was God’s answer to the prayer and hard work of his people.
Behind the scenes, numerous men and women organised secret conferences where leaders from opposing parties could meet. People mediated, wrote letters, organised meetings, and prayed together in small groups and in the thousands. Many of these acts and these people’s names we will never learn about in history books but they all contributed in some way to peace.
I feel the case for ‘celebrating’ may be growing.
We can celebrate that our country didn’t descend into bloody civil war like Bosnia and Rwanda. We can celebrate the numerous progressions that have been made towards protecting human rights in our country. We can celebrate that all citizens have the right to vote regardless of colour or creed.
There is much to celebrate, but we also need to remember that the hard work is not done.
Freedom, as economic, spiritual, physical and emotional flourishing, has not been won yet for the majority of South Africans. Racial reconciliation is as big and as important a topic as ever. Our leadership is in serious need of prayer to change the course our country is currently set on.
Celebrating doesn’t mean we need to stick our heads in the sand and pretend everything is perfect when it clearly isn’t. Rather it should be an opportunity to learn and gain courage from the past.
We can take heart in the knowledge that God has and is willing to intervene on our behalf if we are willing to work hard and pray for it.
Although written 20 years ago, the closing paragraph of “A Witness For Ever” seems to speak prophetically to us today:
“[T]he chance is there individually and nationally to do something beautiful for God and for His Christ. Here in the Beloved Country… South Africa should do it. So that our witness is not just for a fleeting, magic moment of extraordinary time, but for ever.”
Now it’s your turn, what do you think about celebrating 20 years of democracy?