/ 3 May 2019

Civil liberties do not equate to material wealth

South Africans are deeply happy and incredibly angry at the same time when it comes to commemorating their 25 years of freedom.
South Africans are deeply happy and incredibly angry at the same time when it comes to commemorating their 25 years of freedom. (Photo: Oupa Nkosi)

It has become somewhat traditional for us to take a quick nostalgic pause and in almost dramatic fashion, simultaneously remember a time when freedom was but a dream while taking the time out to celebrate that we now have these freedoms that we should be appreciative of.

Considering the fact that I am as old as the freedom this country now enjoys, I have no recollection of a time I had no civil liberties. So, when the end of April comes around every year, I draw my appreciation for the fight for freedom from various sources.

Namely, the routine recollection of apartheid era South Africa through painfully nostalgic memories from older South Africans, who call into radio stations and take part in “voxies” as well as the numerous events hosted by political parties during this time. But mostly, from the SABC’s annual rerun of Sarafina and the iconic scene in which Lelethi Khumalo thrusts her freedom fist into the air as she choreographs us into democracy with the most optimistic smile ever recorded in our television history.

Given that my appreciation for this has been indoctrinated into me by society, the media and my primary school life orientation education, the sincerity of my appreciation is greatly limited when compared to, say, the sincerity of the appreciation of those who recall living during a time without civil liberties.

I have no idea what it feels like to have my movement curtailed by the state, nor do I know what it is like to be denied access to a school based on the colour of my skin, let alone what its like to be denied the right to vote.

I was about four years old when I somehow became aware of my responsibility to participate in the political process of our country. My dad, who was on the 1999 campaign trail for the UDM — then led by Bantu Holomisa and Roelf Meyer — used to hand me a stack of canvassing flyers as I jumped onto the back of a bakkie; he would then drive through our township. It was my job to hand out these flyers while he exclaimed “VOTE UDM” through a horribly inaudible loudhailer.

I knew this must be an important exercise, based purely on my father’s unwavering devotion to and involvement in the process. My four-year-old self had the overwhelming feeling that I would be disappointing my dad greatly if I did not speak about politics and vote one day.

Depending on which side of the arbitrary political divide you stand, hearing heartfelt Freedom Day stories being retold in great routine on an annual basis provides the opportunity to take stock of how far we have come as a nation, or how we haven’t progressed much at all, using April 27 as a yardstick.

I often feel left empty and astonished at how we as a people are deeply happy and incredibly angry at the same time when commemorating freedom. When you listen to their stories, there is a recurring narrative that goes something like: “I am grateful that I don’t have to carry a dompas, but I’ve been promised an RDP house by the government and I’ve been waiting since 1999. Not much has changed.”

Contrast this with the sentiments of people such as FW de Klerk, who feel comfortable and confident in being able to take to media platforms and say things like “life was better under apartheid”.

Younger people often retort against this so-called freedom by claiming that it serves no good if we still don’t have free, quality, deconolonised education. And that when we protest for free, quality, deconolonised education, we are teargassed and harassed by a government and private security institutions that embody the tactics of an oppressive police state.

However sincere these assessments are, especially by young people, it is often not based in fact, and the attainment of freedom is usually conflated with a sufficient condition for good governance.

Freedom — personal and civil liberties — often has a material impact, but should be evaluated outside of the material impact it has. Governance always has a material impact and should always be evaluated from within this context. It is important to not conflate the two.

The right to vote is a hard-fought-for freedom and a civil liberty we should never take for granted, but just because you able to vote, doesn’t necessarily mean you will make the right vote. Similarly, the right to freedom of speech is a hard-fought-for liberty, but simply having the freedom of speech doesn’t necessarily mean that freedom necessarily has to lead to material benefit.

With that said, freedoms and their associated personal and civil liberties are goods in and of themselves. They do not necessarily always have to be social and political goods that are a means to an end.

It is important to make this distinction, because it will allow us to make a more honest and nuanced assessment of our freedoms and liberties vis-à-vis promises, expectations and social contracts made between us and the government at the ballot box every few years.

When the colonial settlers dispossessed black natives from their birth land, it wasn’t an immediate denial of their freedoms. It was an economic disenfranchisement action. The denial of black native freedoms only came after that, when that land dispossession received a legal blessing through stripping black natives of the civil liberty of the right to own property, and then later stripping them of the right to freedom of speech when they dared challenge that act of dispossession. The act of the dispossession, in itself, was not a denial of those rights.

This is important to note, because there is a widely accepted assumption in our democratic dispensation that the attainment of democracy automatically means we will live a materially better life.

We still, as a politically free people, have to apply those freedoms honestly, intellectually and critically to give power to honest representatives and an honest government that we believe is capable of ushering us into a materially humane life.

Just because we have freedom of speech, doesn’t mean we will always and necessarily say the right things and ask the right questions, but that is okay. Similarly, having the right to vote doesn’t always mean we will make the right vote, and that is perfectly fine, because civil liberties aren’t afforded to us on condition that we will put them to good use. They’re given to us purely because they are our birthright.

I make this distinction, and I emphasise its importance, because our material misfortune is often used to render these freedoms as useless. This is why we often have political actors on the opposition end of the political spectrum spewing vitriol such as “life was better under apartheid” — as if the fight for our freedoms has borne us no real good.

I did not live under apartheid, but I can’t imagine life having been better under apartheid. Our freedom is important and worth celebrating, regardless of whether we have material security.

We have a separate, but equally important, duty to use those rights to distribute power in ways that will lead to material security. Yes, more than half of South African lives in abject poverty, but that deserves a separate assessment and remedy.

We have been overambitious in what the attainment of freedom will deliver. Young people, it is upon us to take up a new fight: the fight for honest political representation.