The freedom to think independently, and allowing others the same freedom, is central to our democracy (Graphic: John McCann/M&G)
April is the month in which we celebrate freedom, especially the democratic freedom that came with the birth of the new South Africa. Freedom typically encompasses meanings such as self-determination, exemption from despotic control and civil liberty.
The apartheid regime restricted and denied these freedoms to the largest part of our population for many years. Due to our turbulent history, South Africans tend to over-equate the meaning of freedom with physical exemption from control and freedom from the previous corporeal oppression through a system of segregation and discrimination on grounds of race.
However, freedom is more than just about being free from aspects such as physical oppression. Freedom is also about self-determination and being free to live your life the way you choose to and to do what you decide to do. Indeed, one of the implicit and subtle, but paramount, meanings of freedom relates to freedom of thought — the freedom to think one’s own independent thoughts, to have one’s own considered worldview and life perspective, and to be allowed to, and feel allowed to, think freely and independently for oneself.
If people are not allowed to think freely and independently for themselves, or don’t feel free to do so, they are not free, notwithstanding their rational physical freedom. Freedom of thought requires every individual and society at large to also allow others the same freedom to think freely and independently for themselves.
Through the years we have seen many attempts to curb and oppress people’s freedom of thought. For instance, the previous Soviet Union and Chairman Mao’s China attempted to condition their peoples’ minds to only accept socialistic communism as a worldview; the Nazi propaganda machine brainwashed a large portion of the German population to accept anti-Semitism, and through persistent threats of the “rooi gevaar” and “swart gevaar”, the apartheid government conditioned many white South Africans to accept and support their discriminatory regime.
The common theme in these examples is attempted thought control. Through thought control, one group attempts to impede others’ ability to think critically or independently and determine their own attitudes, values, beliefs, life perspective and worldview.
It would be a grave error to think attempts at thought control and attacks on our freedom of thought are something of the past; it continues in various ways without relenting. For instance, on 19 December 2022, Fikile Mbalula, newly elected secretary general of the ANC, cautioned party members at their conference: “No member will vote with their conscience. This is democratic centralism and the centre must hold.” Although exclaimed by Mbalula, this statement is evidently the view of the ruling party in South Africa as evidenced by the silent condonation by all the top leaders of the ANC.
Unfortunately, Mbalula’s statement not only attempts to limit people’s freedom to enact their beliefs but it rejects their freedom of thinking for themselves and to determine their own destiny; rights enshrined in the Constitution. This expression provides evidence of the ruling party attempting thought control, silencing those who can and want to think for themselves, and forcing them to accept a system in which the few rule unchallenged. Indeed, 29 years after the fall of apartheid, it is concerning to witness such attempts to control our thoughts and our right to self-determination.
Let us celebrate all the freedoms of our great nation on 27 April, not just the legalised freedom from oppression and the freedom to vote. The freedom that came with democracy in 1994 means so much more than “one man, one vote”. Freedom to think independently for oneself is a cornerstone of our democracy.
This freedom commands freedom of speech and expression, not to be told what to say, how to vote, and how to think. Freedom of opinion and freedom of expression are cemented into our Constitution, it cannot be denied and may not be restricted. As liberated citizens, we have the constitutional right and freedom to think for ourselves and to make our own choices.
However, we are also all liable to remain mentally liberated and not to have our minds enslaved by others, especially by those in power. We have to observe what is happening with us and around us, reflect carefully on the meaning of these, think for ourselves, and act according to our conscience, before blindly accepting prescriptions on how to interpret events and how or what to think.
But, of course, let’s celebrate our freedom of thought responsibly by honouring all other human rights as noted in the Constitution, respecting other people’s right to freedom of thought, and let’s refrain from letting our freedom of thought result in unlawful or unethical activities.
While celebrating freedom day, let us remind ourselves of the responsibility to protect our freedom to think our own independent thoughts. Whether these thoughts are appreciated and condoned by others is not the question, freedom of thought is an essential right of every person that must be celebrated and protected.
Mias de Klerk is the director of the Centre for Responsible Leadership Studies and professor in Leadership and Organisational Behaviour at Stellenbosch Business School