Q&A with Gugu Ndebele on Freedom Day

OWLAG Freedom Day 2020

But we know that, now that we have redeemed our pledge to attain the freedom to be free, we have it in our power as a nation to march together to a better life. ~Nelson Mandela

Freedom Day held on 27 April is an annual celebration of South Africa's first non-racial democratic elections of 1994. Freedom can mean many things and today we get to hear what freedom means to the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls Executive Director, Gugulethu Ndebele.

Q. You have lived in two eras’ in South Africa, the apartheid era and now in the democratic era.  How did you define freedom in the apartheid era and how do you define freedom for yourself in this democratic era?

A. I cannot say there was freedom in SA during Apartheid era.  When you are denied fundamental rights never say you are free.  What we did then was to create our own spaces to express ourselves.  We refused to be silenced and gave ourselves the freedom to express ourselves, even if it meant persecution.

During this era, and as someone who is passionate about human rights, I think we have the necessary foundations, like our Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which are supposed to guarantee our freedom.  However, as a woman, especially a black woman, my rights and freedoms are being infringed upon daily.  The abuse and violence metered against women limits our rights and freedoms to be safe and just to be.

Q. What should freedom look like for children in South Africa?

A. I think freedom for children is embodied in Child Rights documents.  Unfortunately, as it is with women, children’s rights are violated on a daily basis.  Their rights to life, health, shelter and safety are denied universally, but more especially in South Africa.  No day goes by without news on women and children being violated or killed.  That can never be freedom.

Q. How does education look like in a free society? 

A. Firstly education in a free society must be of high quality and accessible to all, regardless of their circumstances. Secondly education must be comprehensive, inclusive and child centred. As a country, we come from a violent past and still characterised by violence and abuse, we all have high levels of trauma. Education for us has to be trauma informed. 

Q. OWLAG subscribes to service leadership and the leadership programme educates girl students on the importance of leadership skills and engages them on leadership skills. Why is important for these young leaders to commemorate Freedom Day?

A. In spite of all the challenges I listed above, we would also be dishonest if we were to say our freedom does not matter. It would be an insult to all the men and women who sacrificed their lives and loves to fight for our freedom. My hope is that our young leaders will pick up the spear and fight for those rights. It is my hope that our young women leaders will continue to be the voice of the voiceless. To use their voice to shine the spotlight on injustice. To use their knowledge and expertise to further serve.

Q. This Freedom Day comes at a time when South Africa and the world is dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, as a thought leader, what message of encouragement to you have for the OWLAG community, SA, the continent and the world at large?

A. My message to everyone is:

  • The pandemic is real.  It is deadly.  Let us take it seriously.
  • We know from history (ours and that of the world) that collective action can move mountains.  We have struggled against the worst atrocities and emerged on the other side, victorious, triumphant.
  • It is our responsibility to use our freedom to choose to do the right thing – be safe so others can be safe.
  • Always remember that the most vulnerable will always suffer the brunt of any social challenge.  So, it is our responsibility not just to understand but to act.