A curious case ... Freedom, but for whom?

2015-01-22 06:00

The Setswana fable of Phokojwe le Phiri holds lessons on freedom for all of us. As fables often go, the story changes, depending on who’s telling it. But the plot points are the same.

The cunning jackal Phokojwe talks Phiri the hyena into doing something together. But in the end, only hapless Phiri suffers the consequences. Angered, Phiri seeks out Phokojwe over the injustice – only to be tricked again. And so it goes.

In one story, Phokojwe convinces Phiri to join him in a raid on a farmer’s goat pen. Phokojwe’s paws are too small to dig under the fence protecting the goats.

He needs Phiri’s help.

A hungry Phiri agrees.

The lights of the farmhouse are off when they slip on to old man Borokwa’s farm that night. Phokojwe assures Phiri that the farmer is fast asleep, so they begin to dig.

The second his smaller body can fit, Phokojwe slips through the hole and begins feasting, gobbling one goat after another. But Phiri can’t follow. The hole is not yet big enough for her larger body. So she digs until she can just squeeze through, and she too begins gobbling goats.

But the commotion wakes up farmer Borokwa, who, quick as a flash, is outside the pen, sjambok in hand.

Phokojwe immediately flees through the hole and into the night. Phiri tries to escape, too. But her belly is too engorged with meat. She gets stuck.

Seeing this, farmer Borokwa proceeds to sjambok Phiri senseless before setting her free.

The next day, Phiri, with vengeance on her mind, finds Phokojwe leaning against a giant rock. Thinking quickly, the jackal speaks first.

“Thank the gods it’s you, my dear friend,” Phokojwe says, feigning relief.

Confused, Phiri asks why.

“I was lying in the shade of this rock before it suddenly toppled over and almost squashed me,” Phokojwe says. “But I got up and caught it before it did, and am too weak to do anything but stand here holding it up, in the hope [that] a kind soul would come to my aid.”

He asks Phiri to help him hold up the rock. She obliges. They are friends, after all.

Within seconds of Phiri putting her paws against the great weight of the rock, Phokojwe flees, leaving Phiri trembling with fear that the rock will now squash her if she lets go. Many hours elapse before Phiri, realising she’s been tricked, seeks vengeance again – only to be tricked again.

This fable recognises that a person speaks and acts in an attempt to change the perceived realities and behaviours of others around them.

It recognises, too, that tricksters abound, as is the inevitability of their revelation as tricksters, and that those tricked will seek remedy for the sense of injustice they feel.

But who’s to say, when Phokojwe spoke freely, what effect his words would have on the lived reality of Phiri, who was free to respond to them and the consequences of believing them as she wished?

Had such an omnipresent judge existed, should they have prohibited Phokojwe from speaking?

And if not, should that judge limit Phiri’s freedom to act as she wished in response to Phokojwe’s words?

There’s no possible way to answer no to the first question and yes to the second without making the judge a hypocrite.

Yet that’s exactly what our Constitution does.

The supreme law of our land says, on one hand, that people in this country are free to speak and act as they wish.

But because words and actions affect other people’s lived realities, there are limits.

The document grants none of us the right to engage in speech that is hateful, an incitement to cause harm or propaganda for war.

And it denies us all the right to dish out justice as we see fit.

The Constitution would not have prohibited Phokojwe’s trickery, whether in word or deed.

Nothing in the verbal contract they had, assured Phiri an equal share or solidarity if things went wrong. Only her sense of fairness did that.

Yet the same document would have stopped Phiri from acting freely on her sense of being wronged – except through its courts. And the courts would deny her justice because she freely chose to believe Phokojwe shared her sense of fairness.

This is the fundamental fault line running through our nation. And it is bound to crack wide open violently when trickery can no longer hold the Phiris among us at bay.

The question is: Are we going to wait for this inevitability, or are we going to find a better way to live together?

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