/ 25 May 2020

The myths that swirl around modern-day South Africa should be dispelled

Freedom Is The Door To The Future
We are able to achieve meaningful social change better, and faster, if we act together


With the passing of each year in what we are told is a new South Africa, the term “born free” seems to have lost its power. I felt this loss of potency on April 27, as Freedom Day passed, the occasion feeling distinctly unremarkable. One could attribute this loss of grandeur to the conditions created by the national lockdown; relegated to our homes, away from work and separated from friends, public holidays fade in significance. 

But is the lockdown solely to blame? Sometimes I wonder whether Freedom Day, meant to be a simultaneously joyous and solemn celebration of liberation, has actually meant anything to anyone in recent years. 

There is a tendency for South Africans to possess an unthinking attachment to certain words, values and ideals: reconciliation, the rainbow nation, radical economic transformation, white monopoly capital, liberal democracy, and non-racialism. Often these narratives and ideals function as myth. They are finely crafted, dazzling misrepresentations of reality. Sure, they may sometimes reflect a portion of truth but on the whole they distort. This distortion of realities, past and present, be they social, economic or political, is not coincidental. 

The ideal of reconciliation

For example, let’s look back at the ideal of reconciliation. In our present political atmosphere, intense contestation of the meaning and value of reconciliation, particularly racial reconciliation is common if not welcomed in some zones of discourse. Once upon a time, almost no one with a significant voice in social commentary or political debate critically questioned the ideal of reconciliation. As dictated by the moral titans of the nation — primarily former president Nelson Mandela and  Archbishop Desmond Tutu  — progress towards a fair and peaceful South Africa necessitated the restoration of social stability through forgiveness of and grace towards those who had violently degraded the dignity of other human beings through systemic oppression. 

The commitment to reconciliation, at least in the first 10 to 15 years of post-apartheid, possessed an almost religious fervour, seeming to transcend the vulgarity of politics, projected as a sacred moral value. But as time passed, multiple realities converged and collided. Citizens, black and white, poor and rich, began to share spaces and see each other’s lives (and the socioeconomic conditions in which those lives were contained) with new eyes. The necessity, but more urgently the moral cost, of uncritical reconciliation was called into question. 

As more black citizens entered spaces previously inaccessible (private and former model C schools, law and accounting firms, suburban neighbourhoods), an unsettling discovery was made. Too many of their white managers, neighbours, classmates, lecturers, colleagues had not abandoned — had not even reflected on — their racist beliefs. How could reconciliation be possible with those who so dearly clutched on to these beliefs? 

Beneath such questions rumbled a much more severe flaw with the value of reconciliation: how could forgiveness be granted to those whose wealth, largely untouched by the hands of change, stood as a testament to the continuation of an unfair distribution of this piece of Earth’s riches, initiated hundreds of years ago? In other words, how could peace be restored and human relationships reconciled, in the boastful absence of justice? 

Who benefits from the efforts for reconciliation without justice? The mounting critique of reconciliation, alongside mounting critique of the rainbow nation narrative and non-racialism, has reawakened a desire for holistic justice amongst some black and white citizens — a desire pacified by the compromises of transition in the 1990s. 

“On the 27th of April 1994, the men, women and children of South Africa emerged from the dark vale of oppression to stand in the light of freedom” hearing these words, one can’t help but ask — freedom to do what? Because, 26 years since the dismantling of white political supremacy, many of us born thereafter are beginning to wonder — what kind of freedom have we been born into? Freedomthe word is bloated by numerous meanings and bruised by the fierce contestations of those definitions. 

Like some myths found in sacred texts, the ideals of post-apartheid South Africa act to corral the unruly, soothe anxious minds, calm the rage of the indignant, silence the dissent of critical voices — they act to avoid the conflict which could result from an unfiltered confrontation with reality. 

One could argue that these mythologies operate as what Marxist thinkers would call ideology. As defined by the philosopher Louis Althusser: “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” Why do these imaginary relationships matter? Why must we see the real conditions of our material existence?  Because, without an accurate understanding of the dilemmas which overwhelm us, our efforts to produce effective and far-reaching strategies or solutions for change will fail. 

I’d propose that our status as “born free” acts as ideology in the political order of post-apartheid South Africa. And its grip on our imaginations is unravelling. 

Born-free notion unravelling

I witnessed the first major incident of this unravelling: #FeesMustFall. Partly ignited by #RhodesMustFall, the explosion of the movement was a moment of awakening for many of us “born free”. 

#FeesMustFall did not tell us what we already knew — that too many of us couldn’t afford a tertiary education or that the prospects of financial well-being without a tertiary education are dreadfully slim. Rather the movement spawned an awareness of what caused this issue: the commodification of education, the inheritance of cyclic poverty from apartheid, the impotence of the ANC, not as liberators, but as policy makers  and the general indifference of capital to the destitution of the black majority whose cheap labour they exploited. 

These movements changed us. They began a process which cannot be undone: an ever-growing awareness of injustice in its numerous forms and a vocabulary to explain its causes, to dissect its roots and potentially produce solutions.

The theories of Frantz Fanon and Robert Sobukwe propelled calls for decolonisation of the curriculum, in an attempt to eradicate the alienation of black students in institutions of higher learning. 

Racism was no longer interpersonal. It was one thing to be called a kaffir or a coolie, it was a whole dilemma for racism to exist in the fabric of our social and economic systems. 

Rather than just interrogate the corrosive behaviour of certain men, many began to ask what structures fostered an environment for sexism and misogyny to flourish. The concept of heteronormativity widened our understanding of homophobia. Discourse replaced debate. Oppression was no longer to be seen through the narrow lens of one issue, it had to be understood as intersectional. 

Whatever one thought of this new awareness, whatever worries one had about the language of the “woke”, its influence can’t be denied. 

Ideology often retains a large portion of its vitality through the manipulation of history. Because the present is constituted by the past, the ability to retell history, through a particular lens or from a certain vantage point, is exercising the power to have a meaningful influence over how the present is interpreted and understood. And, therefore, how we act in the present. 

Relooking at freedom

Discussion of freedom as we know it today is impossible without reference to apartheid. Specifically, how the methods of oppression shaped and informed the struggles against said oppression. 

The evil of apartheid was evidenced not only through the ever present use and threat of violence by the machinery of the state. One must remember that white supremacy is firstly a project to obtain power in order to assert dominance and attempt to make real the illusion of racial supremacy. To do this, the agency of those who aren’t white has to be eliminated. In other words, to secure and amass power, while suppressing mass revolt against repression, nonwhite people had to be diminished to the status of infants. Where one could live, who one could love, what knowledge was available to learn, who you could socialise with, where you could and where you could drink — these choices were not yours to make. We were not sovereign over our own lives. 

Certain episodes of internal resistance to apartheid receive more attention than other moments of struggle in the mainstream retelling of history. The ANC’s defiance campaign, protest against pass laws as led by the PAC and the Soweto Uprisings of 1976 are such legendary eras of struggle. One of the reasons for their popular use as tools to help us understand the country these struggles created, is their digestibility when told through a certain lens. We are instructed that they were battles against an external and illegitimate imposition of power. A power which unjustly limited what one could do and the choices one could make, therefore limiting who they could become. 

This retelling of the past frames freedom as the right and liberty to exercise choice, and the absence of external, unjustified restriction of one’s choices or the limitation of one’s possibilities. Political theorists refer to this type of freedom as negative liberty. In contrast there exists positive liberty or positive freedom.  Positive freedom is “possessing the capacity to act upon one’s will” as defined by Isaiah Berlin, the political philosopher who first introduced the distinction between these freedoms.

With the establishment of liberal democracy, freedom as emancipation from external control and the right to choose was written into law. And we are a better society for this transition. Yet, 26 years later, another question ails the minds of the old and young: is this it? 

To live in the rainbow nation is to be familiar with disappointment. Observing our politics, one is sometimes tempted to recoil in disillusionment, the mind aching with a stinging awareness — something is missing. Perhaps it was never here, but its absence is loud. 

Struggle for a decent life for born-frees

The roar of this deprivation echoes in our struggles for a decent life as born-frees: 69% of black youth live in poverty, over 50% of youth who are of working age are unemployed and only 34% of university graduates between the ages of 18 and 34 are employed. What use is the right to shelter and education, what value is the right to free speech or the right to pursue one’s passion, if you don’t have the means to do so? 

The right to choose and the presence of opportunity are rendered hollow by the lack of power to act on your will. Even when restrictions are eradicated, without the means to act, we remain “free from” but not “free to do”. This is a fact that is overlooked by a definition of freedom that is solely negative. 

One mustn’t mistake this as a call to disregard negative freedom, nor as a sign of ingratitude for those who sacrificed their lives in the battle against apartheid and colonialism. The obliteration of institutions, structures or systems which cannot justify their authority over human beings is the first step in the slow progression towards freedom. It is precisely why the democratic institutions we have built since 1994, which act to hold power accountable and encourage a healthy skepticism of authority, must be protected. 

Negative freedom doesn’t need to be thrown aside. It needs to be supplemented by a rich formulation of positive freedom. Those attempting to do this would ask, “What am I free to do with the world’s resources and opportunities in order to enact my will?”, as discovered by an ever-growing number of born-frees, the answer to that question is “not much”. Why? Because the resources of this country, and therefore the power for an individual or collective to practice self-determination, exists in the tightly clasped hands of a few: those who own the means of production. This is where the debate over freedom becomes fervently contested. 

South Africa does not belong to all

A dizzying revelation of living in the rainbow nation has been that South Africa does not belong to all who live in it. Political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi once noted that in fact, South Africa belongs to those who conquered it. In this context I’m not referring to the European settlers but rather the conquest by the interests of capital. 

Private ownership of the means and resources through which goods and services are produced compels the deferral of any movement towards positive freedom. The embrace of capitalism, specifically neoliberal capitalism, by the ANC in 1994 has often subverted and sabotaged attempts to make self-determination a reality. Capitalism, even under the constraints of strong regulation, submits societies to the profit motive. In other words, all economic life, and therefore our sociopolitical lives as a result, is centered around the production of profit for the few at the expense of the majority who do not own, run or have significant investment in the means of production. One witnesses this elevation of profit through the commodification of higher education, as highlighted by #FeesMustFall. 

A minority of people dictating how resources are to be produced, distributed and utilised, means one must submit themselves to the labor market, doing work that is seen as necessary by those who own the means of production. This submission to the captains of industry and big business is aptly described by William Shoki for Africa is a Country, “People don’t choose jobs that will make them most fulfilled, but ones that will help them comfortably survive. The overwhelming majority of our days are spent availing ourselves for work we are compelled to do by subordinating ourselves to the interests of capital, and let’s be honest, most people (correctly) hate their jobs”. 

Our time, our energy, our skills, our talents, our creativity and imagination are not our own. Unless you are born into immense wealth, ultimately a great portion of your life and your abilities are spent in a competitive and harsh struggle for survival. This arduous labour doesn’t fairly compensate those who undertake it, therefore the means to enact one’s will eludes the majority of South Africans. 

Clearly the poverty, inequality and social decay that has resulted from the economic order we adopted in 1994 is self-evident. “Born-frees” have recognised this injustice, because many of us are subjected to it in a multitude of ways. Perhaps it is this generation that will reignite the revolution delayed 26 years ago. Maybe we will see the wealth of this country for what it is, the collective property of all who live in it. Whatever direction, shape or form the struggle of “born-frees” takes, it cannot begin without a conception of freedom. One that is aware of history and the true material conditions of the present. One that asks, “what am I free from and what am I free to do?”

Andile Zulu runs the Born Free Blues blog