Observing Freedom Day from the hustling and bustlings of a busy Beijing, I have not felt this sad in a while for my beloved mother land. My Facebook status on Freedom Day, especially when celebrating it outside of the country, was that patriotic poem of the Russian author, Sergei Yesenin:
”If the heavenly host should beg me: Come to live in heaven above, I shall say: “Don’t give me heaven; Give me rather the motherland I love.”
As I travelled the streets of Beijing, to join compatriots at the Embassy of the Republic of South Africa in the People’s Republic of China, I was, as Judi Boucher sang, in two places at the same time. Streets of Beijing, streets of social media. Elated to be celebrating twenty years of Sino-South African relations, twenty-four years of democracy and the centenary of the births of Nelson Mandela and Albertina Sisulu, giants in our struggle, while weeping internally for the depressive mood in the chattering classes back home.
What Freedom? A shooting in Bonteheuwel elicits. Celebrating what? Youngsters cry because of wide-spread unemployment. Apartheid lives on; in response to chronic, Black poverty that mars the South African landscape. Freedom Day? With no land?
Can’t we even just be positive for one day?
The reality of course is that we live in an “instant” milieu. Millennials, and the rest of us, would describe “good” as something or someone that is fast, efficient and effective. There is no room for trial and error. This is no patience for Rome not to be built in a day.
There is no thinking of struggle in order to achieve great. Quick-bucks, as fast and as much as possible, this is what our generation of young people have come to define as “good”. Why go to school for years, when you can become rich through crime?
Try explaining that despite persistent poverty that Black poor people are better off today than they were under apartheid. Attempt to encourage them to think that the difference between now and then was that the lot of Black people were designed to be poor whereas their lot has changed today; there is no such thing, today, that a Black person ‘must’ be poor.
Encourage them to read about the travesty of injustice where Blacks, and Africans in particular, were designed by the system to learn some skills and were barred from other skills. “Why should the African learn mathematics, if he will never use it,” Dr Verwoerd is quoted as saying. In this time of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we are pushing hard for more Blacks, Africans in particular, to take up subjects and professions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Encourage them to read.
Fake news, cheap psych and “whatever fancies my tickle” without consideration to the other and the environment have become the pillars of our way of learning in this era. We don’t test, we don’t think and we certainly don’t read and therefore we are swept up in this emotional, inward looking consciousness that makes us think only about only ourselves in the here and now.
It does not assist that eminent leaders, especially during the fight against apartheid, characterises the democratic government as being “worse than the apartheid government”. Apartheid was a crime against humanity. Not just Black people, not just for the people in South Africa between between 1948 and 1990. It was a crime against humanity, in the history of humanity. Yes, it was a crime even against White people as well.
Our schooling system does not assist either. As one who believes in hegemonic politics, I believe that for a minimum of ten years that we have at our disposal, as the state, an opportunity to train, indoctrinate and mould children. Instead we think critical thinking means baseless arguments without any form of rationality or theory. Then again, how can we use theory if we have not been taught it.
As a result, everything becomes relative. It is ultimately about how I feel now. My lot is bad now and therefore today must be worse than under apartheid. Even apartheid becomes relative. Ah, it wasn’t that bad because look how bad it is now. In fact, ‘bad’ too is relative, they would argue.
There should be no doubt that we have not accomplished the ‘freedom’ that uTata Madiba noMme Sisulu died for. Their freedom was articulated in the Freedom Charter and, like democracy, it has a ‘here-and-now’ aspect to it but it is also teleological aspect; it is a goal to which we aim.
Some of the aspects of the Freedom Charter have been achieved and others are still being worked on. Therefore it is irrational to demand that complete freedom be switched on like flipping the light switch.
Yes, we do not enjoy the complete freedom that so many fought for and gave their lives for. For even some of them thought that living in White houses, driving White people’s cars, eating White people’s food, dressing up like White people, smelling like White people and sending their children to White schools is freedom. Many, Black people, even today think that that is freedom; only having material things.
The work of the Nobel economics laureate, Amartya Sen, continues to be seminal when speaking about freedom. In his work, “Development as Freedom”, Sen suggests that in order for people to be free they must be given an environment that is enabling. Usually poverty, inequality, injustice, patriarchy and racism, among others, are the shackles to the human mind. Yet the human mind must in itself be free first before these can be removed. For even these can be removed through the emancipation of the human mind.
In Afrikaans, we have a saying: as jy dom is dan gaan jy sukkel (if you are stupid you will struggle).
I don’t often quote sis Mamphela Ramphele but there is one particular instance where she gave me goose-bumps. In a televised debate, a young person was on a tirade about the depressive state of Black people in our country and was bemoaning democracy. Ramphela in response simply looked her straight in the eye and with a voice of the certainty of conviction emphatically said: I am free!
While it is easy for a multi-millionaire, who benefited much from post-apartheid South Africa to declare that she is free, the episode and certainty tells a much deeper truth. It expresses the sentiment sang of by one old legend: emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.
It is a fundamental truth that dictated the minds of all those who have died for freedom. No matter how Black, how poor, how unemployed, how hungry one is, you can still be free because your mind is free! Herein lies true freedom.
Wesley Seale is a PhD Candidate at Beijing University in China