Diary Pages: Freedom Day in Lockdown

We asked our diarists:  Do you usually celebrate Freedom Day? What are your feelings about it this year?

On the 27th of April 1994, South Africans of all races stood in long lines to cast their votes in the first post-apartheid elections. That day has been observed as Freedom Day and is a public holiday in South Africa.  

In the past the day has been marked by different events. Political parties usually hold rallies. People’s movements such as Abahlali BaseMjondolo have used the day to highlight the plight of the poor by mourning what they call ‘unfreedom’. But in 2020, the 27th of April marked the 32nd day of the COVID-19 lockdown. For the first time in 26 years, South Africans were not free to leave their homes.  

On Freedom Day many families and friends have been used to going out for shisa nyama (braai) and other social activities. This year no-one could celebrate. President Cyril Ramaphosa and other political leaders had to share messages via livestream instead of the usual—delivering a speech to thousands of people in a stadium. Some of our diarists told us that they had even forgotten that it was a public holiday. For Joanne, in Newlands, the lockdown had made her lose the track of time, she ‘only realized it was a public holiday … [when] the school told us [that] there would be no online work sent’. Some were reminded by the lockdown diary question of the day, and gave us many profound responses.

Do our diarists celebrate the Day or not?

We received varied responses to this question. Some said that they usually celebrate the day and it has been a time for them to do social activities with family and friends. They were sad that the lockdown had prevented this. Others do not celebrate the day for different reasons. Ash from Delft ‘hardly celebrate[s] anything, not even my birthday’.  

“My family and I usually celebrate. We used to gather and make braai and we chat about the freedom and listen to the presidential speeches. We love our South Africa”.—Andile, Khayelitsha

“We usually read our children the kids’ version of Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom, and then talk about it. We don’t celebrate with a meal or celebration or go to church or anything. But we do set time aside to talk about the book and when we say grace before supper, we specially bless Africa and freedom”.—Natalie, Newlands 

No celebrations during a lockdown

The entries from our diarists who usually celebrate Freedom Day resembled Maya Angelou’s caged bird that keeps ‘singing with a fearful trill…of freedom’. They shared the sadness of being ‘encaged’ in their homes on a day they could have spent celebrating with friends, family and communities. Nolusapho from Khayelitsha painted a vivid image of her feelings, when she wrote ‘I’m not celebrating freedom day because of the outbreak of COVID 19. I’m feeling like in jail.  Nomaxabiso, from the same area, felt ‘trapped and locked up in one place’.

Across the N2 highway, in Delft, Noxy’s wishes tore right into the irony of Freedom Day under lockdown when she ‘really wish[ed] I had freedom to go wherever I want, [to] meet with family and friends’. Sam had this to share: ‘we have to accept that we cannot do those things now because of the lockdown. We miss our families, it is tough’. For some, like Nozuko in Siyahlala, ‘…this Coronavirus thing…washed everything out of my mind, I am scared of it I can’t think of everything else at the moment’. 

“I feel so sad that we cannot do what we are used to. Now we must observe a distance from each other, do things that we thought we would not do, like covering our nose, washing hands regularly and not touching our faces. But we will conquer this”. – Andile, Khayelitsha

While many diarists shared their frustrations, others explained how they adapted to the situation. Mavis, from Block 6 informal settlement in Philippi, found the day ‘frustrating because we can’t do our celebrations…but I’m still powerful, viva freedom day viva! For Papama, things turned a little philosophical, Freedom [Day] is not about gatherings but remembering and appreciating…’ 

“I don’t throw a party or take to the streets to dance or anything like that. But I do take cognizance of it and what it commemorates and what it means for us as South Africans, now and into the future. That doesn’t change just because we’re locked-down this year”. Judy, Newlands

Other diarists were already looking to  2021.  Nolwando in Europe (informal settlement in Delft) wrote: ‘…for this year we will not do so [community gathering] because of lock down but [we] will do it next year because we protect our lives’.  Lilly had already conceded far more than the Freedom Day celebrations. She wrote that, ‘because of this world-wide virus Easter, Freedom Day and even Worker’s Day…will not really have much impact. But we can remember these days and they will come again to mark the years progress as time passes’. 

 Freedom Day and the demands of the moment 

A few diarists described this year’s Freedom Day as being more significant and potentially a time to take a step back, reflect and carry out deeds that should have long been associated with freedom in society. Nonceba, in Khayelitsha, usually works on Freedom Day but this year she was ‘…at Ndlovini informal settlements doing soup kitchen for kids…’  She declared her love for community work and appreciated the opportunity to finally do it on a day such as this one. 

Nonceba’s declaration and deeds on Freedom Day seemed to drastically reaffirm the day’s meaning to her—ensuring that children are free from hunger. She had longed for this instead of being consumed by the routine and business of life when it is not lockdown. The lockdown unexpectedly freed her from the demands of work that had deprived her the time to support the needy children in her community. 

Zukiswa, from Island informal settlement in Khayelitsha, shared similar sentiments with Nonceba. She is ‘cooking for children to have something in their stomach.  I am so happy to do my work for supporting our community members.

She also felt a sense of purpose when she raised ‘awareness about Coronavirus and make sure that others are safe’, even though she cannot hold the usual celebrations with her community. 

Some diarists reflected on how far we still have to go to attain freedom. For Judy, in Newlands, ‘…all the dreadful scenes of people queuing for food because of lack of income and work and homes is another stark reminder of how far we still have to travel in this freedom’. As already written about elsewhere, the lockdown caused the nation to see the vulnerability of millions much more  clearly.

“It makes us realize that we have an opportunity to re-evaluate ourselves and our self-worth and to remember that we always need to be treated with dignity…I think that under the circumstances of lockdown we can use this opportunity to construct a very deracialized society”. –Mysterious, Gouda

“I think it’s so important that as a nation we stand together in the corona fight. So this year we need to stand together at home!!”—Melody, Newlands

The Hollow Ring of ‘Freedom’   

A number of diarists shared the longstanding problems in their communities which have made the day lose its significance. With or without the lockdown, these diarists’ entries conveyed the message that, for some, there is hardly anything to celebrate on Freedom Day. Sounds of ‘unfreedom’ rang so loud and the lines of inequality lie so stark. 

Sivuyile, from Green Point in Khayelitsha, sees black people, in particular, as having little to celebrate on Freedom Day.  He ‘remember[s] the leaders who labored and conquered for us to be free, but the struggle still continues for black people for instance now in the lockdown black people are the ones who are suffering because of being poor. Some are being driven out of their shacks while we are fighting a pandemic…it is not enough to be free in a land you do not own.’

“I don’t celebrate freedom because I see no freedom on our side as black people”. Thembisile, Imizamo Yethu

 A young activist from Khayelitsha, has grown to realize that the people who did not celebrate the day in his community had a good reason as his own experiences and observations have confirmed the Day’s meaninglessness. Esethu, ‘grew up in an area where it [Freedom Day] had no significance…and as I grew older and also being an activist I realized that it means nothing when you live in a township. There is not much freedom you can really celebrate.’ For Zukiswa too, in Island (informal settlement), in Khayelitsha, ‘there is no freedom for the working class who live in the informal settlements, in shacks where there is no basic services.  Class and spatial inequality that have eroded the significance of Freedom Day celebrations.

“I feel that there is not much to celebrate because most people are still poor I would rather say we commemorate Freedom day only as remembrance of some of the struggles that were done by some of our leaders”. –Bonga, Harare, Khayelitsha 

For several diarists, it is the government that holds responsibility for their lack of meaningful freedom.

Thando, from Green Point in Khayelitsha, celebrates some changes that have happened since 1994 but  ‘if only our government was doing what people were promised in 1994 the word Freedom would be very meaningful to South Africans’. 

“As a young black women how I can I celebrate Freedom when am not free to wear whatever I want without being scared of being a sexual violence victim? How can I celebrate freedom when I know I can’t go out early or late to jog because I know I might get mugged? How can I be free when I know our streets are owned by gangsters & the police can’t do anything about it? How can one celebrate when you can’t access a toilet/tap without being scared of being mugged on your way?” –Thando, Khayelitsha

 Ameena, in Woodstock, saw Freedom Day in this light: ‘…for some it’s just another day but for many it’s another agonising day some don’t know where or how they will put food on their table.’  She went on to ask, ‘Does the government even consider the man who goes out daily to do odd jobs to earn food or a penny to put food on his table in the evening? How is government reaching those people? For Ameena, the failure to celebrate the Day for those that she observed, was a direct result of government’s failures to ensure that people’s needs are met.

To Luyolo, Freedom Day is ‘like any any other day for survival in this country… we may be free in terms of movement and organizing but we are not free on Education, Land, Economy’. 

Some diarists’ entries showed that things have been changing, for the worse. A young Assie, in Khayelitsha, usually attends seminars or participates in marches but ‘this year I spent it in fear of a lot of things, I feel the inequality more than ever… living in the township with limited resources, trying to find food for each day, it is difficult.’ 

“I used to celebrate this day with so much passion that I would prepare lunch and celebrate with family, few community members from the struggle days and close friends. We would sing umzabalazo (struggle) songs in appreciation of seeing the few things that have changed since apartheid like living in RDP houses, some sort of equality from education system, freedom of speech and at the same time exercising our own rights in our stylish manner. But  all that has left most of us frustrated, desperate, panicking, lonely, sick because of sicknesses that come out of nowhere, the high rate of unemployment more especially for our youth, poverty, violence, killings and rape amongst black versus blacks , corruption and dishonesty from the government officials, to the level of our community leaders. What is there to celebrate? …there is definitely no hope or brighter future for the next generations to come”. – China, Khayelitsha  


  • As the celebration and marking of different occasions shifts under Lockdown what implications will this have on people’s sense of community?
  • What can the celebration of Freedom Day tell us about people’s broader sense of belonging in post-apartheid South Africa?
  • What reminders might Freedom Day bring in regard to the importance of personal and collective freedom? How do we bring this into conversations around the need for collective interventions in times of crisis?
  • Will the impact of the Lockdown deepen already existing inequalities?

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