President Jacob Zuma on Wednesday spoke of how proud he was at the "substantial progress" South Africa has made since 1994 in comparison to other countries that deteriorated after liberation.
"We have done exceptionally well against all odds, in only 17 years," Zuma said at Freedom Day celebrations at the Union Buildings.
He spoke of the importance of Chapter 9 institutions like the Office of the Public Protector and the Human Rights Commission, which formed part of available mechanisms to ensure that apartheid never recurred.
He urged South Africans not allow anyone or any grouping in society to reverse the gains of the country's hard-won democracy.
This day, he said, marked the celebration of a freedom and democracy obtained through the blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifices of scores of freedom fighters and ordinary South Africans.
"We must therefore commit ourselves to not allow anyone or any grouping or structure in our society, to trivialise our freedom or to reverse the gains of our hard-won democracy."
He recalled how a few years ago, people lived in a country whose system of government was declared a crime against humanity by the United Nations.
He also spoke of the pain caused by the legacy of apartheid that stripped away the dignity of millions of South Africans.
Referring to the Group Areas Act of 1950 which designated residential areas according to race, Zuma said the scars caused by forced removals remain to this day.
The government was attempting to reverse the impact, he said.
"Thousands more still bear the psychological scars of being bundled into Bantustans or so-called homelands."
A broken covenant
I don't see the benefits of freedom, but I hope they will come in my lifetime. I love freedom, but for now it means bloody empty promises. I still have to s*** in such a toilet [a "ventilated improved pit" toilet] and have no privacy in my house.I wish they could buy me a house because clearly this government is failing. I don't know why they have not bought me a house and I'm scared to ask them.
No one in their wildest dream would have dreamed that this place would be like this today.
But the Kliptown you see today is different. On the other side of the railway line is a modern Kliptown, where there is progress, with the government having spent about R300-million to give the area a face-lift. There is a four-star Holiday Inn, underground parking, shops, good roads and houses. That side is strictly for tourists.
But where we live is rotten. My heart sinks when I cross the railway line. On our side there are streams of dirty and smelly water running around our shacks; there is no electricity. We use communal taps and toilets. We don't have houses.
You will be surprised that some people here still use the bucket system, which the government promised to get rid of in 2007. If they tell us that they will not do anything for us, better still, we will die in peace knowing that they care less about us."
I will still vote for the ANC anyway; after all, I get an old-age grant from them.
Hundreds of protesting Cape Town shack dwellers yesterday threatened to boycott next month' s local government elections.
Thandiswa Gabula, of QQ section, an informal settlement in Khayelitsha, on the Cape Flats, was one of the people protesting against lack of services, including basic sanitation, while participating in a shack-fire meeting organised by the Abahlali baseMjondolo (shack dwellers') movement.
Gabula, 45, a mother of four, said she felt excluded from South Africa and that Freedom Day meant nothing to her because her community did not have toilets, running water or electricity.
"I have been voting since 1994. My life hasn't changed. I will not vote this time around," she said.
"I know South Africans who have got the means are celebrating this day elsewhere, but this day brings me a lot of sadness."
For the 23 years that Gabula has lived in the township, she has had to ask her neighbours for permission to use their toilet.
"I think I will only vote during the national government elections," she said.
Resident Lulama Njadu, 42, echoed Gabula's sentiments.
He said his family's circumstances pained him and that he had to send his four young children to Eastern Cape to live with a relative because living conditions in his community were unhealthy.
"I don't see the reason why I should vote. Leaders have been using us as a ladder to get cushy jobs. Once elected, they take us for fools ... this day means nothing to me but suffering."
Mzonke Poni, spokesman for Abahlali baseMjondolo, said the gathering was not to celebrate Freedom Day but to "mourn it".
"We live in shacks, in other people's back yards, in rotting council homes and other urban and rural ghettos. But it's not only about where we live or what services we receive," said Poni.
"Because we are poor, the government treats us as though we are less than human. This is why we are forced to hold Unfreedom Day - to assert our right to dignity."
Earlier, the Social Justice Coalition and hundreds of Khayelitsha residents delivered a memorandum to Cape Town mayor Dan Plato to demand access to "clean and safe sanitation services".