On being free

2014-04-27 15:00

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Foreign criticism of SA glosses over the nuances of what freedom means to those who once did not have it, writes Ferial Haffajee , but that’s not a licence to plunder

Don’t touch me on my Mzansi!

That’s how I felt when scholar Robert Rotberg wrote this about my country in the Wall Street Journal recently: “South Africa suffers from shockingly underwhelming leadership, worsening governance, rampant official corruption, corrosive levels of crime?...?and a deadening loss of hope among young and old. South Africa has lost its moral authority.”

“Whatever. Take a jump, guy,” I felt like writing all week. Look carefully, you may well be describing the US if you use the emerging world as your telescope. I feel no deadening loss of hope. Do you, dear reader?

Our president might have no moral authority, but the nation does. For every surface truth Rotberg lists, there is a deeper one. Freedom is my precious commodity and my vote a thing I still cry for as I make that X.

Freedom can only be understood if you did not have it – a state of being understood only in comparison to its historic absence. This is why scholars like Rotberg can never accurately provide analysis of South Africa.

My freedom is my everything. It has meant a class jump from working to middle class. The attainment of a garden – a tiny one, but the joy of which can only be understood by its absence. When I was little, my parents often took us to Zoo Lake (still one of Joburg’s gems) and then they’d drive home past the fancy houses with big gardens.

I felt as if I lived with my face permanently pushed up against the glass looking at gardens and greenery impossibly out of reach.

Forever, I thought.

Now I have a garden and a few parks within walking distance. And I can say and do as I please (often) without the dead weight of oppression and powerlessness that was my first experience of life and journalism. Back then, bureaucrats could throw you in jail, jam your requests and ban your copy.

Now bureaucrats can try but, generally, access to information cuts like cleansing light through malfeasance. The Mail & Guardian used the law to access the information that exposed Nkandla.

In the one I quote and in previous articles, Rotberg makes much of South Africa’s unemployment rates, but is it fair to lay this at the government’s door alone or does a serious analysis not require a look at the quality of business leadership? Or, for that matter, a look at how minimum wages and other employment equity steps have ripped 5?million of us from working to middle class?

I’m not sure why South Africa does not get more plaudits for this than, say, Brazil and India. One reason is it’s very difficult to find a new middle class person who owns this character. Even really wealthy black people will tell you they are working class. It’s a historical and present form of identity or solidarity.

South Africa has created good institutions – the Constitutional Court, the Public Protector, a free media, Statistics SA – all of which lift us a mile away from the image of a failed state that is often a subtext in foreign writing about South Africa.

Ultimately, the preciousness of my freedom can’t be told in numbers, statistics or institutions.

It is both ephemeral and omnipresent.

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