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The ambivalence of celebrating Freedom Day in times of toxic inequality

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Professor Nico Koopman is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Social Impact, Transformation and Personnel at Stellenbosch University.

On Freedom Day our eyes should be opened afresh to the high levels of toxic inequality in our country; to how it penetrates our life-worlds; to the pain it causes every day.

How free are we really after 27 years of democracy in South Africa? What is the state of freedom in our country? Can we dare talk about the celebration of freedom? Should Freedom Day, 27 April, be on our communal calendar? Should it be a day of celebration and a holiday as in a holy day?

We can only celebrate Freedom Day if we acknowledge our ambivalent progress with achieving freedom in our land. Ambivalent progress entails that we acknowledge and name the progress that we indeed did make toward comprehensive freedom for all and that we, on the other hand, acknowledge and tabulate the painful lack of progress and even regress on the journey to freedom.

In a country with persisting poverty, unemployment and inequality, we can only celebrate Freedom Day with ambivalence at best. South Africa is viewed by many as one of the countries with the biggest levels of inequality in terms of income inequality, wealth inequality, consumption inequality and intergenerational inequality. Moreover, despite some progress, socioeconomic inequality in the country to a large extent still runs along racial and gender lines.

Considering our high levels of inequality, we can only celebrate Freedom Day if we commit ourselves to work for equality in our land. The notion of equality is used in various ways.

We are committed to the equality of all humans in dignity, worth, value, esteem, honour, reverence, respect and regard. We are committed to equality in access to human rights, that is political and civil rights, socio-economic rights, and development and natural rights.

We, however, do not use equality in an absolutistic sense. Due to different potential, talents, opportunity, and levels of dedication, discipline, and commitment to hard work, some forms of inequality do develop. There should, however, be limits to inequality. We cannot develop what American professor of law and social policy, Thomas Shapiro, calls a “toxic inequality”, where millions are bereft of a life of dignity (Thomas Shapiro, Toxic Inequality. How America’s wealth gap destroys mobility, deepens the racial divide, and threatens our future, New York: Basic Books, 2017). On Freedom Day our eyes should be opened afresh to the high levels of toxic inequality in our country; to how it penetrates our life-worlds; to the pain it causes every day.

The notion of aequitas that was employed for centuries in intellectual traditions might offer some assistance. Aequitas (equity) does not imply equality in an absolute sense. It does, however, envision the creation of societies of higher levels of equilibrium where some do not have too much and others too little; societies where poverty reigns no more. Aequitas might help to actualise societies where all enjoy a life of dignity and have access to the most basic necessities and goods of life; to opportunities that will allow them to participate in social, economic and political processes; and to reach their full potential.

A society of equilibrium is enhanced when we practice an ethos of self-denial, sacrifice, service and care, justice and restitution, and when we do not only bear each other’s burdens but also bear each other. Yes, we grow closer to equilibrium when we create societal structures, public policies and practices that are based upon this ethos of service, care, restitution and of carrying each other’s burdens and each other.

Aequitas can help us to get consensus about and commitment to what the most basic conditions for a life of dignity constitute. It can help us to define, name, expose and overcome toxic levels of inequality.

Aequitas also has the potential to remove the anxiety and threat that many experience when they hear the word equality. It can let them discover that equality as aequitas makes room for fair differentiation and incentivisation. Aequitas simultaneously helps to limit the risk of an absolutisation of equality by some, and misuse of the equality discourse to live with irrational entitlement to absolutely equal compensation and incentivisation, even despite poor performance.

Aequitas carries within it the potential to evoke, mobilise and muster people around a common goal, namely to work towards a society of equality, of equilibrium, where some do not have too much and others too little. Freedom from apartheid asked for three communal practices, namely to jointly conscientise, organise and mobilise.

Freedom from toxic inequality asks for a new conscientisation; for being awake, for being aware, for paying attention, and for adopting the challenge of toxic inequality as a concern that speaks to our individual and collective conscience as a nation.

Freedom from inequality asks for organising that entails creating political, economic and social policies and practices, structures and systems that actualise human rights.

Freedom from inequality asks for jointly mobilising all our resources in all walks of life to overcome inequality and poverty, and to get closer to a free country of equilibrium where all, including the natural environment, enjoy a life of dignity.

We cannot celebrate Freedom Day without this joint commitment to conscientise, organise and mobilise for a society free of toxic inequality, a society of equilibrium where all enjoy equal dignity. DM

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  • A little late to START working for equality! The ANC has squandered both the opportunity and the resources that were available by promising Utopia (all Mahala) and delivering very little to the vast majority. 27 years ago there was energy and goodwill on all sides – now we have cynicism and despair