Why freedom means different things to different people

THE SOUTH African Flag flies high as thousands gather at the Union Buildings for Freedom Day celebrations in this file photo. It is this month of March, Freedom Month, that we need to vigorously examine the meaning of freedom in our society. Picture: Elmond Jiyane/GCIS

THE SOUTH African Flag flies high as thousands gather at the Union Buildings for Freedom Day celebrations in this file photo. It is this month of March, Freedom Month, that we need to vigorously examine the meaning of freedom in our society. Picture: Elmond Jiyane/GCIS

Published Apr 7, 2024


By Tswelopele Makoe

THERE is a considerable amount to be said about the past thirty years of democracy in South Africa. South Africa boasts the greatest constitution in the whole world, and the sentiment of freedom has been etched into the identity of democratic South Africa.

It is this month of March, Freedom Month, that we need to vigorously examine the meaning of freedom in our society.

As we advance towards Freedom Day on April 27, as well as our seventh democratic elections on May 29, we have the opportunity to give meaning to our democracy, to honour the privilege of being able to vote, and to commemorate those who sacrificed themselves for the freedoms we enjoy today.

Freedom has a different meaning to different people. However, in a democratic nation’s context, this should not be the case at all. Every single citizen in a nation should share in the experience of freedom; otherwise there is an imbalance, and essentially an inequity in the society.

Confronting challenges is an essential part of redressing them. We need to acknowledge the lack of harmony between what is stipulated in our Constitution, and the realities of our present-day society.

In chapter 2 of the South African Bill of Rights, it is stipulated that everyone has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law. In reality, however, countless citizens are unable to defend themselves against the stern hand of the law.

Lawyers, litigation and legal processes require a large amount of capital and resources that many do not have access to. Although national laws allow citizens to legally represent themselves in court, the proceedings are often challenging and complex, putting those without legal representation at a stark disadvantage.

Chapter 2 of the Bill of Rights also stipulates that everyone has a right to an environment that is not harmful to their health, and to have that environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations.

It further specifies that the State must take reasonable legislative (and other) measures to foster conditions which enable citizens to gain access to land on an equitable basis.

Although our Constitution is clear on the right to adequate housing for all, approximately 8 million South Africans are living in informal settlements and inadequate infrastructures. About 200 000 citizens are living in homelessness, many of which are young children.

Homelessness, particularly amongst young children, exacerbates violence, substance abuse, addiction and chronic illnesses.

The Bill of Rights further stipulates that every child has the right to shelter, basic healthcare services, education, moral and social development. Children also have a right to basic nutrition and must be protected from neglect, abuse and exploitative labour practices, to name a few.

Statistics SA reports that of 1 million children who experience violence at school, close to 84% experience corporal punishment by teachers.

The Optimus Study SA reported that sexual abuse of children and adolescents is extremely prevalent, with 36.8% of boys and 33.9% of girls having reported some form of sexual abuse. These staggering figures equate to one in every three adolescents having experienced some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime.

There are innumerable human rights protections enshrined in our national laws, and although many citizens are able to indulge in the protections bestowed by these laws, there are many more that are unable to.

Over half of all South African citizens are living in extreme poverty. As of December 2023, 7.9 million citizens were actively seeking employment. According to Stats SA, youth demographics aged 15-24 years and 25-34 years recorded the highest unemployment rates of 60,7% and 39,8% respectively.

The role of government in a nation is to facilitate an environment that advances economic empowerment for everyone. However, this is not the case in our context.

Our economy is bone-dry, and the cost of living continues to stratify. This means that scores of citizens are starving, and the opportunities for empowerment and economic advancement have dangerously dwindled.

In fact, a report by Numbeo indicated that South Africa is the most expensive country to live in in Southern Africa, particularly in terms of the cost of living (groceries, transport, utilities and restaurants).

In addition to this, (German statistics platform) Statista reported that as of 2024, South Africa has the highest unemployment rate, not only continentally, but also globally.

The inequalities and systemic inequities in South Africa are particularly burdensome to the younger generations, who face constant impediments to their self-development.

This is particularly evident in higher education institutions. Although there are countless graduates who are still seeking employment, numerous students struggle to graduate at all.

Many who are dependent on financial assistance such as National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) are in a constantly precarious state, fighting mismanagement of funds, financial exclusion at random, difficulties with housing, transport and even food. Having to rely on unpredictable and unreliable systems is a burden that affects innumerable students.

Additionally, socio-economic disparities mean that many students struggle with the demands of academic life, from the financial responsibility for resources, to language barriers, to inflexible curricula and teaching methods, and often safety in and around campus.

Countless students also work, alongside their studies. This not only takes additional efforts but can also present its own challenges such as non-payment during certain periods.

Although many institutions have functions in place for struggling students, these are often ineffective. Ultimately, this is an infringement of human rights and a form of systemic discrimination, one that is ineffectively grappled with by institutions.

The challenges that young people face are especially heightened for women. In 2023, over the span of three months alone, 10 516 rapes, 1 514 cases of attempted murder, and 14 401 assaults against female victims were reported.

Global Citizen also underscored that young girl’s education is threatened by obstacles such as child marriage, poverty, period stigma and an overwhelming lack of gender education in South African curricula.

At the dawn of South Africa’s democracy, the nation was highly unequal, and millions of people were living in impoverishment. Thirty years later, there is access to quality education, resources and opportunities for development, yet scores of citizens remain in a precarious living situation.

The socio-economic disparities across various sections in our nation are glaring. Millions of citizens are desperately trying to grab opportunities to break institutional barriers and shatter generational curses, yet they are stifled at every turn.

For many, therefore, I want to argue that freedom is merely an idealistic sentiment. It has been popularly said, and arguably proven, that our democracy often favours only those with money.

Therefore, those who live day-to-day, on an empty stomach, who cannot afford to buy bread, or even afford to take a taxi, would undoubtedly reject and discredit the notion of freedom in our present-day lives.

Corruption, real or perceived, is blatantly present and has tainted our democracy. It has disturbed the actualisation of our freedoms. Leaders throughout our history, such as Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Walter Sisulu, were the antithesis of corruption and self-serving greed.

How then can our current crop of leaders claim to belong in the same league as those that came before them? How can we begin to talk about freedom and rights, when 30 years into democracy there is so much repression?

Although we are a fairly new democracy with a unique set of challenges, many of our societal impediments have emanated from greed in the highest echelons of national governance. Those that have chosen to overlook the struggles of our society should no longer be permitted to stifle our freedoms and human rights.

As we draw nearer to the general election, we need to be mindful of the freedoms that are bestowed on us – the freedom to vote, to move freely, to ascertain anything in order for our personal growth and development.

It is also pertinent that we are mindful of the countless freedoms that are still restrained – the struggles of the lived realities of the people, the institutional biases that continue to repress the opportunities that should be inherently enacted by our Constitution.

As the first democratically elected president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela said: “As long as many of our people still live in utter poverty, as long as children still live under plastic covers, as long as many of our people are still without jobs, no South African should rest and wallow in the joy of freedom.”

* Tswelopele Makoe is a Gender and Social Justice Activist, published weekly in the Sunday Independent & IOL, Global South Media Network and Eswatini Times. She is also an Andrew W. Mellon scholar, pursuing an MA Ethics at UWC, and affiliated with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice. The views expressed are her own.