Almost 20 years ago South Africans of all colours and political persuasions stood patiently in very long queues for hours, waiting to participate in the first democratic elections that ushered in what most regarded as the first democratically elected and thus legitimate government of South Africa.
White men offered, in never-before-seen acts of chivalry and kindness, their camp chairs to tired black women, while black women offered their oil-drenched amagwinyas (fat-cakes) to the “baas” who accepted and enjoyed with relish.
Into the night we stood, undeterred by the darkness. We joked together and drank from the cup of our shared humanity. We spoke a different language then, the language of conscious presence. All of us, fatigued by the conflict that had characterised our history, looked hopefully to a future that would be free of the injustice and violence of our past.
Black and white sensed the opportunity for liberation from the shackles of history and we began our wounded march, in hopeful embrace into an uncertain future. It was indeed a moment to celebrate as Nelson Mandela publicly accepted the mandate to be South Africa’s first democratically elected president in full view of a profoundly proud nation and an envious world.
This was the beginning of what promised to be a beautiful relationship. South Africa had finally arrived!
As in all relationships, life’s realities test the bonds of all unions and, in those tests, agendas are unmasked, infatuations evaporate. This is an inevitability of any relationship, whether it is friendship, lovers, relatives or countrymen.
But it is the ability to overcome these tests, to understand and appreciate the lessons taught by the failures and successes of life, that give cause for celebration. It is important, therefore, to look at ourselves honestly and critically in order to assess our progress, to see whether after 18 years we have cause to celebrate our freedom.
Perhaps the most objective lens through which we can begin this assessment would be the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, a set of defining aims, aspirations and values penned by our most esteemed leaders and visionaries in an inclusive process.
This was our collective agreement, the guidelines that would set the tone and underpin the laws for our coexistence, given the vast multiplicity of often conflicting needs. This was indeed the document that defines in words what our freedom, an often illusive concept, should mean to every South African.
It is in this document that we identified in broad terms the sanctity of equality before the law, redress, cultural diversity, economic freedom and security, to name but a few of the values enshrined therein. This is both our birth and marriage certificate but, if we are not careful, it could also be our death certificate.
So how have we fared if we are to test ourselves by this Constitution? Has our coexistence as a new democracy manifested the notions declared in this document? Have we given meaning to these declarations over the past 18 years? Are we indeed free?
One need only look at our media to understand that the “honeymoon” is over, an appropriate metaphor for a faltering new marriage beset by the sobering challenges of life. The crime and corruption, the ineptitude and mismanagement in government are legitimate causes for general disillusionment.
This is further exacerbated by an arrogance and entitlement that disrespects the very spirit of the Constitution: officials who cling to power even when they’re caught red-handed in acts of corruption, the racial slurring and polarisation that has become commonplace in our discourse, and the crippling poverty and growing inequality in our communities. The list is endless.
Indeed, if this is a marriage, intensive counselling is desperately needed if divorce is to be avoided. Perhaps this is the reason for an uninspiring, painfully contrived Freedom Day celebration at the Union Buildings last week. It was like having to drink an unrefrigerated, carbonated beverage that has lost its fizz on a hot day.
It was a truly embarrassing event indeed, riddled with badly read speeches by dignitaries, bored guests, and amplified by the clumsy, late arrival of the new President of Malawi, Joyce Banda and her entourage. This was a deeply unpleasant event to observe, one that is best forgotten and never evoked in any future conversation.
Perhaps our freedom lies not in the structures and systems constructed by our rational minds but in our spiritual attitudes towards each other. Allow me some dramatic licence in order to make a point for consideration.
Not long ago a celebrated young couple in a village in kwa-Ndebele were at loggerheads and on the verge of divorce. The families had come together in a customary tribunal to assist in the reconciliation of the pair – with very little success. The young bride and groom eloquently stated their cases pointing out the other’s faults and seeking retribution for their respective suffering. So heated was their argument that it threatened to cause further enmity in the respective families as emotions soared, especially from their mothers. An elder was called to mediate.
A ceremonial bench was placed between the two families, where the old man assumed his seated position and lit his pipe. Through the bellowing smoke he began to speak: “Your marriages are doomed to failure” he said “because they are based on contract and not covenant.” Puzzled, his audience kept their peace as he continued. “Your union is based on mind-made reasons, as if marriage is a rational, time-bound agreement about you and your things. It is not.
“You see” he continued, puffing at his pipe, “contracts are about things and the effective management of things. Whereas covenants are about the purpose, meaning and motivations of things. In the struggle for material survival, to keep life and limb together, there is a shift in focus from the spiritual dimension of our relationships to a material focus. We begin to accumulate more things and soon we value ourselves according to those things and the ethics associated with the accumulation of these things.
“Soon we forget why we got married, a spiritual disconnect occurs and tension and confusion ensue and so we quarrel as we search for meaning. Our desire for meaning is a fundamental human need which connects us to our spiritual dimension, without which there can be no joy, no sense of freedom. But because our focus at this point is on the accumulation of things from whence we derive our temporal value, we search and demand meaning, a spiritual value, from the material, a futile exercise.
“That is why we quarrel even more about the things of marriage: time, money, sex and so on. Our quarrels have elevated form above essence and made us prisoners of form, which is why we have no joy, no freedom,” he declared.
“What do you mean Mkhulu?” asked the young man.
“Any relationship will be tested by life’s circumstances” said the old man “no relationship will survive the strain of life’s tests if it is based on the fleeting notions and things of a particular time, however reasonable and logical they may seem. Life is greater than time and more forceful, so any relationship that is to survive the test of life must be bound by stronger bonds than those that emanate from a particular time.”
“Why does life subject us to this suffering?” asked the bride.
“It is not life that subjects you to this suffering but your ignorance of life’s purpose for you that causes you so much suffering” said the old one. “You see, life is constantly giving birth to itself through our various relationships. Our relationships are both the womb and birth canal of life. So precious is the gift of life that it will not be left to the devices of time-bound, mind-made reasons.
“This is why life violently shakes and rattles our mind-made thinking. Those relationships which were not meant to bring forth the next phase of life’s manifestation usually die under the pressure of life’s labour pains.
You see, life knew you before you were born and desired that you should be life’s conduit, life’s womb for the next phase of life’s glorious manifestation.
“That is why your paths crossed and you recognised in each other life’s calling and purpose. This is why you fell in love. This is the real reason why you submitted to the union of marriage. It is life loving itself through you. This was not a decision made by your time-bound, mind-made reasoning. Your union is the resonance of the eternal impulse, in time.”
The old man’s words seemed to break through all resentment and resistance and a spirit of humble sobriety seemed to descend on all present.
The young man then broke the mesmerised silence and asked in childlike resignation”
“What must we do Mkhulu, to bring back life’s favour upon us?”
“Learn life’s truths and choose.” he said, “Choice is the only human faculty upon which even life has no power. This is absolute freedom, not circumstantial convenience. The ability to make informed choices is freedom. A man who chooses in ignorance is a prisoner because he does not understand the cause and effect of his choices. I say choose to speak the language of covenant in your home and not that of contract.
Speak the language of service rather than that of entitlement.
“This is the fundamental difference between contract and covenant. Understand that you are bound by the acceptance of the privilege of being life’s conduits for its own manifestation, partners in proud submission to the purpose of life. Your understanding of and acceptance of these truths will connect you with each other in covenant and not in contract. This is true freedom and life can only thrive in the freedom of covenant and not in the prison of contracts. Choose life.”
Perhaps we as South Africans need to take the old man’s advice as we reassess our democracy and decide whether our constitution is a contract or a covenant. Perhaps this will help us see that we are, individually and collectively, custodians of a divine purpose. This is where our freedom resides, in our conscious relationships with others – not in structures and systems.
Perhaps we will recognise each other as life’s channels of expression for the next phase of our nationhood. This would be a significant paradigm shift towards finding creative solutions for the often difficult task of governance. Perhaps we will realise that we, amid all the uncertainty that life has to offer, can be certain of this one thing: We have choice, a choice to choose life or death, good or bad, ignorance or understanding.
That this is our true freedom and that is worth celebrating. DM