Freedom’s hollow phrases

2014-02-18 10:00

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Twenty years into democracy, the numbers sound sweet, but they don’t make a song. Mondli Makhanya on why quality matters.

If you were to simply look at the statistics, the picture would be a beautiful one.

It would show that since 1994, the nation’s gross domestic product has grown from R1?trillion to R3?trillion; that 3.3?million houses have been built; that 1.2?million households now have access to electricity; and that more than 90% of South Africans have potable water.

It would also show that literacy levels, school enrolment and university admissions have shot up spectacularly and that the matric pass rate has been on a steady climb.

You may be tempted to hum Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World and talk at length about all these amazing things that 20 years of freedom have brought us.

But then you might look at some other realities and the picture will no longer look so pretty.

THEN Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki sing along to the national anthem during election-victory celebrations on May 3 1994. Picture: Juda Ngwenya/Reuters

NOW A protester holds up a placard referencing the ANC’s election promises during a peaceful protest march in the Ramaphosa settlement, east of Joburg, in 2009. Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

You would see images of angry communities manning burning barricades, destroying public property and clashing with the security forces.

You would hear angry voices on our radio stations and read incensed letters from newspaper readers moaning about the state of the nation.

Your ears would also encounter the caustic rhetoric of politicians speaking about “defending the revolution” and referring to political foes as “the enemy”.

At mass rallies, they would be spooking voters with scary stories about the inevitable return to apartheid if they did not choose the correct political party.

There would be the overbearing presence of race in public discourse and ugly whispers in corners.

These scenes are hardly the scenes one would expect in a free society.

The language of war would also be very incongruent with the idea of freedom.

Which brings us to the questions: How do we define and measure freedom?

How should a free people behave in a free society?

What should the expectations of a free people be?

In the struggle years, freedom was associated with the overthrow of the apartheid government and its replacement with a democratic state that would be accountable to the people.

This state would provide services and entrench the basic dignity of the South African citizen.

In the democratic years, our notions of freedom have diverged, and many in the governing party want South Africans to believe that freedom means receiving “delivery” from the state.

Meanwhile, classic liberals in the opposition say that freedom is about creating space for individuals to advance.

Yet another view is that freedom means the fulfilment of the basic rights enshrined in the Constitution.

In extracting gratitude and loyalty from South Africans, the ANC reels out the delivery statistics mentioned above.

It is an incessant message, hammered into the citizens’ consciousness with the force of a handyman driving a nail into a piece of wood.

“We gave you water, we gave you electricity, we gave you grants and we gave you tons of other goodies. So thank us and love us.”

In the early years of democracy, the people bought this message.

For many who had been deprived of these basic services by apartheid, having these necessities was to taste freedom.

And to be fair, the delivery and transformation of lives in that period was nothing less than remarkable.

But the argument has worn thin. People assume these services to be their rights and not favours.

What they expect are quality services and an improvement in the quality of their lives.

In essence, they want their freedom to mean more.

So in demanding this enhanced freedom, they have gone back to the tactics that brought them basic freedoms.

They have raged against the machine, in legal and illegal ways.

The response of those in power has been to try to shrink the space the people have to make these demands, thus compromising the very freedom that underpins the democratic society.

As the government has come under pressure from communities, a vibrant civil society and a vigilant media, the hawks in the governing party and the state apparatus have had second thoughts about the extent to which freedoms should be enjoyed.

They have sought to introduce laws and regulations that limit the freedom of expression and association.

They have pushed for the state to lean towards greater secrecy in its interactions with the citizenry.

A common theme has been to downplay the importance of human rights, arguing that some societies with fewer rights enjoy a higher development gradient than those where citizens enjoy greater protections.

The Constitution – the guarantor of freedoms and rights – has come under pressure from these elements.

Civil society groupings and critical citizens have been demonised and labelled as counter-revolutionaries and reactionaries.

On a more brutal level, the security forces have crushed working class protests with a ferocity that belongs in undemocratic states.

Fortunately, society has been stubborn and steadfast in resisting these incursions into our freedoms.

Whenever the state behaves in this manner, there is massive outrage, showing the value ordinary citizens place on freedom and the ability to challenge power.

With South Africa now about to enter its third decade as a free nation, we should be engaging in loud conversations about the meaning of freedom.

In doing so, we should not be narrow in our understanding of it.

We should avoid falling into the governing party’s bricks and mortar mechanistic definition.

This breeds and perpetuates servitude and dependence.

Equally, we should not veer to the other extreme of seeing it only as the absence of infringement on rights and divorcing it from the improvement of material conditions.

Makhanya is editor at large

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