Opinionista Ashanti Kunene 4 May 2017

The Illusion of my South African Freedom

There are key events, watershed moments so to speak, that have occurred since 1994 that have, for those paying attention, irrevocably shattered the myth of the rainbow nation; that have exposed the cracks in this illusion we South Africans call freedom.

April 27 is celebrated as Freedom Day in South Africa, where we celebrate our first “non-racial” democratic elections that took place in 1994. It is a day that supposedly marks the end of slavery, colonialism, apartheid and the beginning of a new democratic dispensation. The year 1994 was the year South Africans received their freedom as the outcome of a negotiated settlement. We were celebrated globally as the Rainbow Nation, held up by the world as the beacon for human rights, the poster child for Africa.

There are key events, watershed moments so to speak, that have occurred since 1994 that have, for those paying attention, irrevocably shattered the myth of the Rainbow Nation; that have exposed the cracks in this illusion we South Africans call freedom. The 2008 xenophobic attacks; the death of Andries Tatane in 2011; the 2012 Marikana massacre; the 2015/2016 Fallist movements and the emergence of Fallism as an ideology among black youth who are part of the so-called “born-free” generation.

At a very basic level, freedom is the “right to act, speak or think as one wants”; it is the “state of not being imprisoned or enslaved”.

The political violence of colonialism was “dealt with” in 1994 with the negotiated settlement that sought to work towards a form of citizenship, which was “not about where you are from but where you are at” (Pillay, 2015). This speaks to the preamble of the South African Constitution where it states, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”. This conceptualisation of citizenship in South Africa was a departure from what the norm was on the rest of the continent, where other African states sought to reverse the understanding of who was native to Africa and who was a foreigner in this land. Unlike the rest of Africa, in South Africa we allowed the white man to remain a “native”.

The economic violence of colonialism is the reason why South Africa has one of the highest levels of inequality and continued racialised poverty. The negotiated settlement of 1994 was a compromise that said: “Okay black people, we will allow you to vote and give you political power but in exchange you will leave the economy alone. Our money and our land will remain with us.” Thus ensuring the continued economic exclusion of majority of the South African population. To paraphrase a learned friend of mine; “the South African economy as it is right now, is fertile soil for a full-blown revolution. History has taught us this”.

Consequently, access to money has become a key barrier to freedom in SA. Money is the gatekeeper of freedom in South Africa, without it you cannot “act, speak or think” as you want. Money is the God of the capitalist society. This democracy of ours facilitates a prepaid freedom. It is a pay as you go system of democracy and those that possess copious amounts of melanin, are those that simply cannot afford to pay. If you can pay, you can afford a good education. If you can pay, the law will work for you. If you can pay, you can live in a safe and clean neighbourhood. If you can pay, you can eat healthy food. If you can pay, you can get quality medical care… the list goes on.

Freedom understood as the mere absence of direct coercion is a fundamental fallacy of liberal thought. The fear of economic destitution coerces in a manner far more insidious as the grasp of the Leviathan.

Besides the political and economic aspects of freedom, what I think is by far the most important aspect of freedom is our collective epistemology. On an epistemic level, millions of people in this country are enslaved. Enslaved in the most profound and insidious way as it is an enslavement that they cannot recognise and further, it is an enslavement that is unknowingly and unconsciously self-imposed. The words of Paulo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed come to mind:

The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped. The oppressed perception of themselves as oppressed is impaired by their submersion in the reality of oppression. There is a ‘fear of freedom’ that afflicts the oppressed. The oppressed having internalised the image of the oppressor and adopted (his prescription of who they are) are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility. Freedom is acquired by contest, not by gift.”

Freedom is acquired by contest and not by gift. We need to fight to acquire true freedom. One does not become free through negotiation. One does not “receive” freedom. Freedom is to rise above this submersion of reality to see clearly. In the words of Toussaint Louverture, leader of the 1791 slave rebellion of the then Saint Domingue (modern day Haiti), “open your mind and you are free”.

Ashanti Kunene is an International Relations Masters student at Stellenbosch University. She is a#FeesMustFall student activist and a Radical Black Feminist



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