South Africa, use freedom now or lose freedom tomorrow
‘To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others’ – Nelson Mandela.
April 27 is Freedom Day in South Africa. In writing this week’s editorial it is tempting to lament the unfreedom tens of millions of people in South Africa still experience: freedom from hunger, freedom from disease, freedom from femicide, freedom from ignorance, freedom from democide.
The list goes on.
We can – with good reason – blame the government, the business elite and corruption.
However, that dread refrain is now all too familiar.
Instead, on this freedom day we urge people in South Africa to think about the meaning of freedom; the grave threats to freedom in the world; and how to use the freedoms we still have most effectively to advance the constitutional vision of socioeconomic freedom, equality and social justice.
Freedom is not a passive state, it’s an active state; freedom is not a privilege, it’s an obligation; freedom is not an end but a means to an end. Freedom is not just something we demand only of the government, but also something we must actively create within and around ourselves.
Freedom is not an ornament, but a set of tools to go about building a fairer, safer and sustainable society.
Undoubtedly, South African democracy and constitutionalism are taking strain. We can see the outlines of an alternative gangster state that exists in KwaZulu-Natal. Given space, the RET faction and others inside and outside the ANC would metastasise this cancer onto the country as a whole.
The fact that they can’t is because, at this moment, we still have many of the freedoms in our Bill of Rights: most of us have freedom of speech and association, freedom of the press and other media, the rights to assembly, demonstration, picket and petition. The right to campaign for a political party or cause, to vote.
We have access to the courts and an independent judiciary.
We have Chapter 9 institutions like the South African Human Rights Commission, the Auditor-General and the Office of the Public Protector, when that office is in honest hands.
None of these freedoms is without serious challenges. Ask Abahlali baseMjondolo if they have freedom to campaign for a cause in the shacklands of eThekwini, and they will tell you about their 20 murdered leaders.
Our argument is not that we should be “grateful” for these freedoms and shut up; they do not balance out the socioeconomic freedoms and the right to human dignity that tens of millions are still denied.
But if we don’t use the freedoms we have now there is a danger that in the years ahead we will lose them.
The only way to protect these freedoms is by exploiting them to the full, by persuading people of their value, and demonstrating their power by working together on campaigns for other freedoms that most of us agree are necessary: for access to sufficient food, basic education, early childhood development, and to mitigate the climate crisis.
Last call for democracy
People in South Africa should rally around our freedoms because all over the world the lights are going off on freedom. Covid-19 and now the war over Ukraine has led to dramatic reversals of freedoms. The climate crisis will accelerate these trends.
Read in Daily Maverick: “Five million deaths a year and rising — what are you doing to save my f*** life”?
Authoritarianism is becoming the default position of governments.
On Monday it was announced by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) that in 2021 world military expenditure passed $2-trillion per annum for the first time.
The United Nations (UN) was far from perfect but today, in response to crises, multilateralism is being replaced with unilateralism; the UN is being downgraded and bypassed. In the words of former UN leaders who wrote to UN secretary-general António Guterres, urging him and his office to play a leading role in the Ukraine crisis, the UN is facing an “existential challenge”:
“We are horrified at the alternative, the UN becoming increasingly irrelevant and, eventually, succumbing to the fate of its predecessor, the League of Nations, with the human losses and material destruction that went with it.”
Threats to freedom come from all quarters: the West and the East, private power and the abuse of public power.
In Hong Kong the last lights of democratic resistance to China’s authoritarianism are being blatantly extinguished, as trade unions are closed down.
In the US, the Republican Party, which Noam Chomsky rightly describes as “the most dangerous organisation in world history”, is working overtly and covertly to ensure that one person, one vote, majority rule, is neutered by legislating voter-suppression measures.
In Zimbabwe, Zanu-PF, the ANC’s partner in crime, is overriding the 2013 constitution by introducing legislation closing down the right to civic space for NGOs, in no small part to clear away obstacles to its ability to steal the 2023 general election.
In Ukraine, there is now a fully fledged proxy war between the US and Russia, with grave implications for future life and democracy.
Even in so-called citadels of democracy like the UK, the courts are being cajoled into attacks on freedom of the press. The juxtaposition between the way the path is cleared for Elon Musk to buy Twitter and the treatment of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden could not be greater. Where money talks, rights walk.
There are few bright spots in the world.
With the indispensable help of civil society mobilisation to get people to vote, democracy held the line against right-wing populist parties in Slovenia and France on Monday. But, as we are seeing in the US, without addressing inequality and its drivers – including the climate crisis – this is just a stay of execution. In countries like Chile, for example, there is a counter-attack to try to make sure that a constitutional experiment – like South Africa’s in 1994 – does not even make it onto the statute books.
In this context, South African democracy is suddenly looking quite lonely and “we, the people”, the 60 million-plus souls who live in South Africa, quite privileged!
April 27 is a day to recharge your batteries. It’s a day to talk to family, friends, schoolmates, workmates and faith mates about the world we want and how we are going to have to fight like hell to get it.
That is why this is not the time to mourn the loss of the dream of freedom, but to act and organise for its preservation. This is not a job to be left for the people and organisations you consider to be activists – the challenge is too big even for them – but for every person in society who says they subscribe to life, dignity and human rights. Get going. DM/MC
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