Fireworks. American flags. Patriotism. Cookouts. Celebrations. The Fourth of July is here again.
As we celebrate our declaration of independence from You-Know-Who, we come together in the spirit of the founding of this country to commemorate who we were, who we are and who we will become. As I think about this holiday this year, it has a different meaning for me. Gone is the cynical "why are we celebrating this day when it did not pertain to so many disenfranchised groups at the time" way of thinking. In its place is a real regard for the ideas about independence upon which this country was founded. These great men, many of whom were slave owners and regarded women as mere symbols and objects, communicated lofty ideals that still resonate today. In spite of the hypocrisy of our democracy, the spirit of independence with which our Constitution is imbued is an important one and should be celebrated by all.
Having traveled extensively, it becomes more and more apparent that our democracy is not a fallacy. We have rights, freedoms and privileges that are not available to many people. Last year, I worked tirelessly on a documentary about the public servants' strike in South Africa. Most people were willing to discuss the challenges that they faced on camera. They talked openly about corruption, the dire consequences of the Bantu education system, and the government's unwillingness to grant public servants (teachers and health workers) a 12 percent raise while giving exorbitant raises to government officials. President Thabo Mbeki, for example, received a 55 percent raise and Chief Justice Pius Langa made out with a 65 percent salary increase.
People fought back, going on strike and letting those in power know that they would not stand for such injustice. Upon my return trip this year, I found the fire in the bellies of the teachers had died. I had supported them symbolically, marched with them and documented their stories -- a story I was still trying to tell. While I got to come back to the United States, they had to stay and suffer the consequences. Most of the people that I had previously interviewed declined to be interviewed again. Local officials gave me the "run around," and when someone did agree to be interviewed, it was only off the record. What they said on camera was vastly different from what they said to me privately.
It became clear to me that they are operating under a cloud of intimidation. They know that their jobs are in jeopardy and quite possibly more. Those who participated in the strike last year are now being punished. They are being made to pay back the government for time missed during the strike. While this is not unusual in South Africa, the way that the government is going about it is quite unusual. The government is taking chunks out of their February, May and August 2008 paychecks. Some are losing entire paychecks. In a profession where one is already severely underpaid, this loss means that some teachers are not eating, are unable to get to work, and are unwilling to go the extra mile that is often required of teachers, regardless of where they are in the world. These folks, mostly women, have been silenced and punished, in a place that claims to be a democracy.
I am hyper-aware of my ability to represent their stories and to loudly criticize pretty much whomever I please with little rebuke or scorn. Readers write in and tell me about myself all of the time, but my supervisors allow me to exercise freedoms outlined in the Constitution with little to no recourse. It is interesting to see how democracy is defined in South Africa, which in my mind operates like a socialist country, which is fine, if indeed it is supposed to be that. But it is not. What looks like a democracy to them does not look like a democracy to me. To see the spirit of so many people quelled because of their passionate embrace of democratic principles is troubling.
Zimbabwe is another country that highlights the great range with which democracy is defined. President Robert Mugabe is murdering and maiming anyone that speaks out against him or voted against him. He has literally stolen an election that he lost in order to remain in power. While stealing elections is not foreign to America, the way that he has gone about it is heinous. For example, Abigail Chiroto, the wife of Emmanuel Chiroto, the mayor of Harare, was murdered. She and her four-year-old son were kidnapped. She was beaten in the face with a tire iron beyond recognition because her husband is a member of the Movement for Democratic Change, the oppositional party.
This year, celebrating the Fourth of July has a different meaning. Reading about it is one thing, but experiencing it is something completely different. While I understand that America's democracy is far from perfect, I appreciate the fact that it is a continuous work-in-progress that allows for the voices of many, which should be celebrated during this holiday.