Still unfree in an apparently ‘free’ SA

Freedom Day also a day to tell the younger generations how we queued on 27 April 1994 to vote for the first time, says the writer.

Freedom Day also a day to tell the younger generations how we queued on 27 April 1994 to vote for the first time, says the writer.

Published Apr 26, 2023


Nico Koopman

Cape Town - This year we celebrate Freedom Day (27 April) with the feeling that we are drifting back into captivity. Freedom Day is a day to remember how we struggled for freedom; how we sang freedom songs.

We adjusted the Scottish folk song “My Bonnie lies over the Ocean” to “Our leaders are over the ocean; Our leaders are over the sea. Bring back, bring back, bring back our leaders to us, to us”.

This is also a day to tell the younger generations how we queued on 27 April 1994 to vote for the first time. We remember the long queues that were formed at the voting stations. We remember where we voted.

We remember how we developed theories for freedom. We borrowed from the German theologian Martin Luther who taught us about freedom from oppression and freedom for responsible living.

We drank from the wells of ethicists like the American Helmut Richard Niebuhr who taught us that there is no freedom without an ethic of responsibility. The Russian-British social and political thinker Isaiah Berlin taught us about negative and positive liberty.

Negative liberty means that we are freed from external obstacles that prevent us from doing what we want to do. Positive freedom implies that we can determine our destinies ourselves, and that we have the capacity and authority to achieve that destiny.

We developed a Bill of Rights that taught us there is no freedom where there is not dignity; there is no freedom where there is not healing of all the physical, psychological, spiritual, social, political, economic and ecological wounds; there is no freedom where there is not justice; there is no freedom where there is not equality.

Over the last three decades we developed policies and practices in all walks of life to advance the building of a human rights culture, which includes a culture of freedom and responsibility.

Twenty-nine years after our first democratic elections, freedom has not dawned for all South Africans. We are not free from, amongst others, racism, ethnocentrism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, xenophobia, ecocide and discrimination. We are not free from poverty, unemployment and inequality. We are not free from corruption, state capture, crime and bloodshed. We are not free from cadre deployment, nepotism, mediocrity, under-performance, and poor service delivery.

We shall grow closer to freedom for all if we perhaps identify and address various freedom destroyers. I name some of these freedom killers.

We need to revive the spirit and ethic of seeking the well-being of society, especially the well-being and flourishing of the most marginalised and vulnerable in society. This ethic, which steered us to overcome apartheid and to achieve democracy, seems to have dwindled.

We need to get rid of the romanticising of former liberation movements that became political parties. Our appreciating and cherishing of great struggle heroes, and our appreciation for the role of liberation movements should not blind us from seeing poor performances after decades of democracy. We must not forget the progress that we have made in our democracy.

We must not forget the many wrongs of the colonial and apartheid past that had been inherited and that still inhibit full freedom. But we must assess the performance of parties and leaders of a democratic South Africa through the lens of sobriety and honesty, and not through the blinding lens of romanticism and nostalgia. We must call a spade a spade and be honest about shortcomings, failures and even violations of the treasured ideals of the struggle and of democracy.

Another freedom destroyer is our collective inability to focus appropriately on the past, the present and the future. We often tend to work for a better past, and not for a better future. We need to imagine new possibilities.

We need to believe that the imagined reality is better than the current reality, and that we are not doomed and entrapped to current and past negative realities. To imagine, is to work for the actualisation and fulfilment of the imagined reality.

A focus on the future also implies that we practice reversed mentoring. Older people should be open to learn from younger people. We should allow younger people to also serve as mentors for us. Younger people appreciate the past and simultaneously have the capacity to practise a healthy distance. They are not emotionally attached as older people are. They judge with a surprising sobriety and clarity. I enjoy drinking from these wells. Unwillingness to learn from them and to be mentored by them, bereft us from the appropriate lenses to make sound party-political decisions today.

A last freedom killer is our incapacity to transcend the categories of the past. Our division into various racial groups should not be eternalised; they should not be used to divide and alienate or to perpetuate apartheid. They should be used as indicators of particularity, diversity and hybridity.

Hybridity implies that people from different backgrounds mingle with each other, engage with each other, and embrace each other. Hybridity means that we do not give up on our particular identities, but that we become more than that particular identity due to our mingling with each other. Hybridic identities nurture a cohesion and togetherness that enable us to journey jointly and joyfully forward to fuller forms of freedom.

Prof Nico Koopman is Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Social Impact, Transformation and Personnel at Stellenbosch University.

Cape Times