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Celebrating 30 years of democracy

- Lynn Morris

[Editorial] Wits continues to contribute towards advancing democracy, social justice, and human rights.

Professor Lynn Morris | #Curiosity 17, #Democracy |

The theme of this edition of Curios.ty is very timely as we celebrate 30 years of democracy in South Africa. I still remember 1994, as I’m sure many do, queuing for hours waiting to cast my vote and then celebrating as we welcomed Nelson Mandela as our first post-apartheid President. 

The South African Constitution, adopted in 1996, is widely regarded as one of the most progressive and innovative in the world. It enabled the dismantling of apartheid and spawned a new era of democracy and human rights in our country. It is one of the few Constitutions to include a comprehensive set of socioeconomic rights, such as the right to housing, healthcare, education, and social security, reflecting a commitment to addressing issues of poverty, inequality, and social disparities through legal mechanisms.

Wits University has played a significant role in South Africa's democratic history and continues to contribute towards advancing democracy, social justice, and human rights through its research and advocacy. This issue of Curios.ty provides research, perspectives and commentary from our academics and professional staff across faculties on both our progress and our shortcomings.

The impressive Wits Libraries house some of the most important collections documenting our path to democracy, among which and most notably are the reports by the Goldstone Commissions of Inquiry, which exposed human rights abuses leading up to the 1994 elections, including the murders of many prominent anti-apartheid activists. One of South Africa’s most important social justice archives, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's (TRC) archives, was recently returned to Wits for safekeeping. Papers from former Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson and Advocate George Bizos are also at Wits and available for scholarly endeavours. According to Dr Daisy Selematsela, the Wits Libraries are democratising knowledge through Open Access initiatives, which help strengthen our democracy.

Thirty years has also brought some disillusionment as we grapple with corruption, inequality, and unemployment which undermine our young democracy. The right of access to a basic water supply, enshrined in our Constitution, is sadly not a reality for many South Africans writes Professor Mucha Musemwa and colleagues. And despite having a robust legislative framework, the lack of accountability threatens to undo all our good work in protecting the environment, which in turn compromises our ability to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Implementing the National Health Insurance Bill is an admirable and essential goal, but a clear roadmap to universal healthcare does not yet exist, say Wits experts in one of this edition’s articles. The magazine also features a poignant account by Professor Hlonipha Mokoena of the #FeesMustFall protests that broke out at universities across the country in 2015 – starting at Wits – and whose embers threaten to reignite at the start of each academic year.

To prevent South Africa becoming a failed society, we must all rise-up and become active citizens, writes Associate Professor William Gumede from the Wits School of Governance. Democracy relies on holding perpetrators of crime and corruption accountable and bringing them to book, but we have failed dismally in this regard, according to Professors Everatt, Hamilton and van den Heever. However, despite these shortcomings, they say, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic for the country’s democracy and its future.

Ensuring that we continue on the path of progress, development, and reconciliation requires the ongoing dedication of institutions such as Wits University to defend democratic principles and to safeguard the gains made over the past three decades. We are undoubtedly up to this task. We are committed to shaping the future of our country through research, dialogue, and critical thinking and to producing the next generation of inspirational leaders.

  • Professor Lynn Morris is Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation at Wits University.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the 17th issue, themed: #Democracy, we turn to our academics and professional staff for their research, perspectives and commentary on both the progress and shortcomings in our democracy, and democracies elsewhere.