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Freedom Day 2022 — What freedom when life is precarious and poverty all-pervasive?


Prof Amanda Gouws is Distinguished Professor of Political Science and SARChI Chair in Gender Politics at Stellenbosch University.

Many people merely survive from day to day, without knowing whether they will see another day. Many people who are migrants fled wars, persecution or starvation and cannot claim rights.

On 27 April we are celebrating Freedom Day, a commemoration of South Africa’s first democratic election that took place in 1994. A liberation struggle was fought so that we all could be free. But what does freedom really mean? Many South Africans may argue that their lives have not changed much or become freer since 1994.

The French Revolution connected liberty (freedom) to equality and fraternity (community). This bloody revolution also cemented the relationship between liberty and human rights. Those who fought for rights during this bloody period in human history rejected obscene accumulation by greedy leaders (like Marie Antoinette who said about the hungry ones — “let them eat cake”) and the rule of despots.

One of the triggers of the French Revolution was the inability of peasants to have access to the most basic essentials such as food. This revolution heralded the period of human rights for everyone and an end to slavery. These are the rights we now take for granted.

But for rights to have meaning we should be able to claim them, and they should be enforced through the criminal justice system. So important did we deem rights that we included a Bill of Rights in the Constitution. The most fundamental right is of course the right to life (combined with bodily integrity).

More than 200 years after the French Revolution we are faced with a similar situation of inhuman inequality and social exclusion or what the philosopher Judith Butler has called “precariousness”. In her book Precarious Lives (2004) she asks the questions “who counts as human?, what is a liveable life? and whose lives are mournable?”

Late modernity is a state of insecurity for the majority of the world’s population. Many people merely survive from day to day, without knowing whether they will see another day. Many people who are migrants who fled wars, persecution or starvation cannot claim rights because they are not citizens of the countries where they find themselves, even though rights are supposed to be universal. Those who cross the Mediterranean in leaky boats do not know if they will ever see land again. Many people live in such degrading human conditions that rights have no meaning for them.

The philosopher Wendy Brown argues that human rights in the time of neoliberal capitalism cannot ease suffering and address the causes of social grievance because of structural inequalities that oppress and exploit people, especially those who live in poverty and whose lives seem not to have meaning.

The liberation Struggle in South Africa was fought so that everybody’s lives could improve — “a better life for all”. Yet, in 2022 South Africans have to cope with very high levels of poverty, unemployment, very poor service delivery and large-scale corruption by political elites, while the majority live precarious lives, especially during and in the wake of the Covid pandemic. To merely survive puts them at the lowest level of the Maslowian needs hierarchy. Only once the needs for survival and safety are met can people develop a sense of belonging and self-esteem to move toward self-actualisation where freedom really has meaning.

If nothing tells you that your life is valuable and that your death will be mourned, other people’s lives won’t have value either. In these conditions, vigilante justice such as Operation Dudula makes sense — the life of Elvis Nyathi did not have value in the eyes of the people who killed him and burnt his body. In their eyes, his was not a mournable body.

Violence has become an integral part of people’s lives. Life in mere survival mode is “nasty, brutish and short”, as philosopher Thomas Hobbes said. But Hobbes said this would be the case if there is no central government. The irony in South Africa is that there is a central government, yet one that seemingly does not care about its citizens.

It is very hard to reconcile democracy with precariousness, but globally neoliberal capitalism contributes to an ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor with South Africa being the most unequal country in the world. Many people will not experience freedom in their lifetime and most women will not stop fearing sexual violence. As long as women are not safe, they are not free.

One of the biggest setbacks for democracy is the blame that citizens put on human rights regimes for not living up to the ideals of freedom. If freedom is not linked to rights, how will we ensure freedom? Only when freedom is linked to the other two dimensions carved out by the French Revolution — that of equality and community — will freedom become meaningful.

When we celebrate Freedom Day, we shouldn’t forget about the need for greater equality, the need to resist, inter alia, neoliberal capitalism and the importance of building communities of care. The pandemic centred care as one of the most important dimensions of human life. DM


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  • Craig B says:

    South African communities are increasingly hollow even previous middle class areas are like ghost towns of decay. There was something very positive about the capital controls of the previous government. If you wanted to make more money you had to actually do something. You couldn’t just play investment games all over the place. They do need to change the playing field it is not working other than creating a very selfish class of people.

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