/ 9 July 2024

The meaning of freedom and life in the age of false idols

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We are all political animals by nature, so let us protect our freedom from the tyranny of false idols

Why is there life rather than nothing? This is one of the startlingly odd questions we encountered in philosophy 101. Intimidatingly outlandish as it seemed, we tentatively embraced it as part of the philosophical terrain we had signed up for.  

So, with fortitude we attempted to ponder its answer. But no matter how hard we tried, none of us could bend our minds to imagine a nothing. Nonetheless, we were not bothered by our failure to answer a question we thought we would never need to ask in “real” life.  

But long after graduating from the philosophy department at the University of Cape Town, that question came to my mind again. At first it was a matter of a curious mind about the purpose and meaning of my life. I needed a philosophical and scientific reason for being alive — in addition to religious explanations.  

I first explored Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. But it disappointingly offered me causes, not reasons.  And philosophical existentialism told me to make my own meaning. But I needed meaning in context, politically and socially.  

Then I read Aristotle’s claim that “man is by nature a political animal”. Aristotle imputed to me the nature of a political animal. That is the context I needed to discover the meaning of my life. And it is in this political context that the meaning of my life makes sense of my purpose in the cause for a better world.  

Henceforth, to vote for a government was an extension and expression of my meaning and purpose. Holding back the duty to elect a government would have been the denial of my meaning and purpose. I would be lost without a cause.  

But I do not recall voting for false idols. My philosophy 101 question helped me to  break the spell. So I asked, “Why is there freedom rather than tyranny?” The answer to this profound question is in the story of a naive boy who nonetheless voted in 1994. Standing in the queue to the ballot paper that Autumn morning, his young mind was preoccupied by what, not who, he was about to vote for.  

He was born and bred on a white-owned farm until he was seven years old. Even then he noticed that the demeanour of the elders toward the white farmers was like worshipping them. 

He felt pity for them. But more than that, he was perplexed by the reverence for other human beings. Xhosa cosmology was not constructed to accommodate the worship of living beings. So he resented these false idols, who were vicious and violent to the dignified pillars of his community; the fathers and grandfathers that they referred to as “boys”. 

His wish was to get away from the farm, to avoid maturing to the age of susceptibility to abuse by the farm owners. Danger was all he wanted to flee from. He had no political concepts to describe why those farm owners had to be avoided, let alone the notion of their being obstacles to political freedom. 

Ironically, it was the myopia of former Ciskei president Lennox Sebe that introduced the boy to the concepts of freedom and equality. Sebe was warning, for the umpteenth time, about the threat of communists and terrorists. When he said these communists and terrorists were claiming to be fighting for freedom and equality, he inadvertently inspired the boy to covet what the communists and terrorists wanted.  

His adolescent mind was particularly captivated by the word equality, which of course he was not processing in political terms. He knew it from being taught to treat all older people as his parents and all other children as his siblings and on that basis, to share fairly and respect equally.   

With this understanding of equality, this boy wished those terrorists and communists did not exist only in Sebe’s mind, because if they win their fight for equality then he could someday be able to live in the way that the white farmers and their families did.

As he waited excitedly for his turn to vote, he now knew that Sebe lied by calling the freedom fighters “communists” and “terrorists.” But still he did not care to know the faces of these freedom fighters, as long as they were committed to what, not who, he was about to vote for. 

The boy voted for freedom because he wanted no human obstacle to the horizon of his dreams. He voted for freedom from fear of being authentic about what is right and wrong. He voted for freedom not to worship another human being; the false idols who believe that might is right, authority is divinity.

That boy might not have known that his pursuit of freedom was the contrast of tyranny. Yet, he was born into a world where “baas” was the law, owned you, beat you and decided how many cattle you could own. Baas decided who, among the black children, was too good a shepherd to be allowed to go to school. 

That boy was born into the world where his elders worshipped a living being; not because they thought he was divine, but because they knew he was evil and their fate was in his hands. He knew tyranny through experiencing and witnessing it, although he didn’t know the word for it. 

Curiously, as a grown man, that boy began to vote like an automaton; the ballot paper lost its worth, and its charm. He might have fallen victim to the ubiquity of cultic fixation with the politician and the party,  not their service in the cause for  freedom and justice. 

To break the spell I repurposed my philosophy 101 question and asked, “Why is there freedom rather than tyranny?” Let us not be philosophical about it for now. All that we wanted was unfettered proprietorship of our lives; to be authors and dramatis personae in our stories.  The antithesis of this freedom is tyranny, and its manifestation is the imposition of my will on you. We  recognised tyranny and that the struggle for freedom was animated by its force. The point is to recognise it again, because it has begun enveloping the world insidiously. 

Unable to withstand the bitter taste of Jacob Zuma’s chalice of betrayal, Fikile Mbalula had the audacity to say “we” (the governing party) lied about Nkandla to protect him (Jacob Zuma). 

Was it not Mbalula and the governing party that defied the report of the public protector and the Republic of South Africa on this matter? If a tyrant is an absolute ruler who imposes their will, unrestrained by the law, then Nkandla was a theatre of tyranny. 

Why is there freedom rather than tyranny? By now we do know why. But what I am not sure we are on the lookout for is tyranny. Suicidal as it may be in the long run, political parties are becoming more corporate than popular. But somewhere I read that, “the arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.

Mzwandile Manto kaB Wapi is an independent philosopher and community activist.