What is free­dom?

CityPress - - Voices - Gugulethu Mh­lungu voices@city­press.co.za

Be cog­nisant of the far-reach­ing hor­ror of the thing that came be­fore

Mark­ing and ob­serv­ing Free­dom Day can be a con­flict­ing process, be­cause the ques­tion of what is ap­pro­pri­ate for the day arises. Do we cel­e­brate or do we speak hon­estly about how sub­stan­tive so­cioe­co­nomic free­doms are still not avail­able to so many?

The truth is, we must be able to do both at the same time. We are not a coun­try of sim­ple chal­lenges and sto­ries and, if we are to have an hon­est con­ver­sa­tion about what free­dom re­ally means to­day, we must be will­ing to ask what kinds of free­doms are re­alised, and for whom. At the same time, we must bear in mind the mas­sive sig­nif­i­cance of the political free­dom at­tained in 1994. In at­tempt­ing to make sense of con­tem­po­rary times, we must be clear about what April 27 1994 did, and also what it didn’t do.

At the same time, we mustn’t be pre­cious about ad­mit­ting the very sig­nif­i­cant short­com­ings and fail­ures of our political free­dom.

It is of ut­most im­por­tance to be cog­nisant of the far­reach­ing hor­ror of the thing that came be­fore.

This can­not be em­pha­sised enough.

How­ever, as we be­gin to ask, “What kind of coun­try do we want for our­selves?” we need to also hold our­selves to a higher stan­dard than sim­ply say­ing, “At least to­day is bet­ter than what came be­fore 1994.”

The stan­dard was so ap­palling and ter­ri­fy­ingly low un­der apartheid (in terms of free­doms and rights) that al­most any­thing can be “bet­ter”. We have also seen how “bet­ter” has not pro­tected mil­lions from dif­fer­ing and in­de­fen­si­ble kinds of vi­o­lence.

“At least” has meant we have, ac­cord­ing to Stats SA, set­tled for a so­ci­ety with grow­ing in­equal­ity where the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of young peo­ple has emerged as less skilled than their par­ents – a damn­ing in­dict­ment of our free­dom and equal­ity project.

What is free­dom to­day when in­equal­ity means that ac­cess to pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion is de­ter­mined by fi­nan­cial means, and ac­cess to said means is still highly racist? In a coun­try where, to be a woman, queer or trans is a ter­ri­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, “at least” is sim­ply not good enough.

Sekoet­lane Phamodi, of Jo­han­nes­burg Peo­ple’s Pride, cru­cially asks: “Can you hold the Con­sti­tu­tion against your vagina and they’ll stop rap­ing you?”

And, when the dire and of­ten dev­as­tat­ing re­al­ity of liv­ing in this coun­try is raised, it is not enough to sim­ply point to political free­dom. We must deepen the ex­pe­ri­ence of it and not hide be­hind hav­ing “at least” at­tained political free­dom.

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