The Concept of Freedom

As I was watching the ANC’s January 8 statement where it celebrated its 99th birthday, ANCYL leader Julius Malema said something in his short, fiery speech that got me thinking about the concept of freedom and what it means or should mean for us. Malema said the following, “President Zuma, we have a special request: lead us into economic freedom. You can vote until you are pink; as long as you don’t have economic power, your vote is meaningless.” Naturally these words evoked a strong response from the crowd that was gathered to celebrate the ANCs 99th birthday, but for me these words, whilst true from a factual perspective, are bothersome, because of the message that they send to South Africans about the notion of freedom and how it can be attained. The words uttered by Malema and cheered by large sections of the crowd at the ANCs birthday celebration shindig betray a certain, dangerous paradigm that we seem to have embraced as South Africans which in my view prevents us from becoming the winning nation that we aspire to be. This is the mindset or attitude that says that we can only be free if someone external to us takes us towards that freedom. In other words our freedom as individuals is dependent on some kind of external political figure or messiah who will ascend to the throne and provide the solutions to all our problems. Can a society that is continuously looking for external messiahs be said to be truly free? To me this sounds more like the attitude of slaves than freemen. As stated by the American poet Ezra Pound, “a slave is one who waits for someone to come and free him.” Africa’s problems can be summed up in this one statement: our people are not truly free because they are still waiting around for someone to come free them when they are for all intents and purposes free to take charge of their own lives and destinies. This has led to an over-reliance on political messiahs and messianic political organisations, which has destroyed the continent and is at present killing the great potential that South Africa possesses. What, in essence is true freedom? According to the French Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, “freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” This is an insufficient definition for freedom because it limits the exercise of freedom to a re-active rather than a pro-active stance. Black Consciousness Movement leader Steve Biko argued that, “freedom is the ability to define oneself with one’s possibilities held back not by the power of other people over one but only by one’s relationship to God and to natural surroundings.”  Charles de Montesquieu defined freedom as, “the right to do what the law permits.” Biko and de Montesquieu’s definitions of freedom provide us with some important qualities or attributes that should be characteristic of a truly free society. A society of free people is a society of individuals who are empowered to take charge of their own destiny without being limited by the power of other people over them i.e. not reliant or dependent on politicians or any other external group of people but self-reliant, self-defined and self-driven, with the only limitation being their relationship to God (or some Higher Power if you like) and to their environment (which consists of nature and other people around them). Secondly a society of free people is one which has a high regard for the rule of law and operates within its parameters. It is on these points that Africa and Africans are often found wanting and hence are not truly free. In the words of the German philosopher Hegel, “the history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” It is only when we are consciously free, that we can actually develop and progress. Progress and development are linked to our consciousness of our freedom. If we are not aware of the fact that we are free, we will continue to pin our hopes on political messiahs and this kind of attitude will only leave us in bondage and at the back of the queue in the quest for progress and development. Freedom is directly linked to individual empowerment and is the only cure for the disease of over-reliance on the political function, politics and politicians. Freedom also implies personal responsibility and an ability to choose wisely. It is not license. In the words of the English poet John Milton, “none can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom but license.” The degree of latitude we are permitted in our choices depends on our ability to choose responsibly and the depth of our character as citizens. This is an area in which the African citizen has fallen horribly short. We are good at passing the buck and holding others responsible for the misery that we often find ourselves in without taking personal responsibility as African citizens. We constantly abuse our right of choice by making the wrong decisions and blaming others (e.g. politicians,) when things go wrong. Freedom is not to be confused with getting everything that we want. This kind of attitude betrays a sense of entitlement which is detrimental to our health and progress as a continent. In South Africa we have a populace that mistakes freedom for getting whatever they want without contributing much and this has created a social crisis which is hindering the progress of the nation as a “disempowered” citizenry sits around and expects everything it wants to be done for it by an increasingly impotent government. As Blaise Pascal put it, “it is not good to be too free. It is not good to have everything one wants.” It is time for Africans to be truly free and to display some of the qualities and traits that are characteristic of a truly free people. It is not good enough to live in a continent where, “most of our people are so disempowered that, to them, living means not dying” to use the words of South African deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe. This is indicative of a continent of individuals who are still in bondage. Of course this kind of freedom can never be gotten through the exercise of outdated policies such as nationalisation and all kinds of socialist policies, because that leaves people still dependent on the state and hence not truly free. Anti-Apartheid struggle icon Oliver Reginald Tambo said that, “the fight for freedom must go on until it is won; until our country (continent) is free and happy and peaceful as part of the community of men, we cannot rest.” This battle for freedom is for every individual African to take on. It is a freedom to define ourselves and our possibilities, to choose wisely, to embrace personal responsibility, to operate within the parameters of the law, to be free from over-reliance and dependence on the state and on others, to maximise our own potential by looking beyond our limitations and to take charge of our own individual and communal destiny as citizens instead of surrendering it to the state and politicians. As Thomas Hobbes famously said, “the power of a man is his present means to obtain some future means.” This is what it means to be truly free. This is what it means to give “power to the people.”
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Mugabe Ratshikuni

introverted, shy, nothing to write home about

2 thoughts on “The Concept of Freedom

  • January 15, 2011 at 3:06 am

    Mugabe, inspiring sentiments indeed!  Individual freedom and individual responsibility go hand in hand.  This is obvious and simple, but it is not easy.  Each citizen must come willing to do their best for the team, community or society.  This requires hard work, often done against the odds and without a guarantee of success.  When such a consensus is reached in society, there is virtually nothing that cannot be achieved.  I liken the process to that as it exists in the best NBA basketball teams:  The team with the most talented players does not necessarily win the championship, rather it is the team with the right chemistry that is most likely to come out on top.  Each member does their best, honing their skills to perfection, and trusts all of the others to do likewise.  The coach and management supply leadership, encouragement, strategy and support.  If everyone does their part exceptionally well, there is a chance for success.  Such is the nature of competition; victory can be very sweet.  Defeat means you regroup and try again.

  • Profile photo of Mugabe Ratshikuni
    February 1, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Willem, unfortunately the area of individual responsibility is one where we Africans often fall short and I think it is absolutely imperative that we focus on this as an aspect of freedom if we are ever going to turn our continent around.


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