Extra Virgin June

Freedom is Green

The right to vote means precious little if you don’t live in surroundings that are healthy enough to cleanse your water, filter your air and grow your food.

True freedom, says Leonie Joubert, can only happen if the environment is properly cared for.

It wasn’t a single winter of discontent. It was two, back to back. Earth pirouetted through space on the pointed toe of its axis, and tilted its southern bowl away from the sun as it had done, so routinely, for the past few billion years. But as it spilled South Africans into the winter of 1976 and then, one full orbit later, into the winter of 1977, something much darker and bleaker than the mere season was unfolding.

First came the shattering picture of Hector Petersen’s limp and bloodied body being lumbered from the fray of the Soweto Uprising on June 16, 1976. A year later, the insinuation came from government spin doctors that Steve Biko had “used his democratic right to starve himself to death” in jail – but the truth later told that he’d been beaten to within an inch of his life, and then denied treatment until he did die.

These were low points in an ongoing struggle for freedom in South Africa. The struggle to birth a country where its citizens take care of one another, on behalf of each other; one where the citizens appoint their government to be custodians of the land and where we jointly decide to keep the space in which we must co-habit as healthy and liveable as possible.

Think of it this way: we’re all squashed up together into a little paddling pool. Together we have to behave in a way that keeps it clean and safe for all of us. Freedom means nothing if we can’t have a healthy and safe pond to splash about it.

Post-’94 SA was set apart from the previous regime – not just for giving each person a vote, but it agreed on basic human rights, including a right to a healthy, unpolluted environment that is conserved for future generations, where development and use of natural resources is done to promote “justifiable economic and social development”.

A young woman, Zengeziwe Msimang, responding to the Mail & Guardian’s coverage of Freedom Day, called her post-’94 generation the “spoilt children of Mother Freedom”. “We interpreted freedom as the right to have,” she wrote of a materialistic, depoliticised generation growing up in a liberal democracy, one where “silence has enveloped the political spaces” instead of continuing the rallying cries of its parents. She has a point.

A healthy environment, like a healthy democracy, is not a destination that you arrive at; it’s something that you have to keep working towards. The youth of this generation need to pick up the struggle that their parents carried for so long. If we don’t persistently call our government to account, we can’t complain if they don’t keep our spaces healthy, our air clean, our water flowing, or our biodiversity thriving.

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