When confronted with the question of what freedom is, a few thoughts come to mind. Despite having been promised freedom in 1994, very few of us are yet to feel free, despite our world-renowned constitution. Freedom does not lie in the ability to walk on pavements or use the front entrance of a building, does it? We seem to invoke these post-apartheid liberties when discussing the topic as if such things were not always a right of ours.
On the topic of freedom, I always remember the words of the indomitable Mona Eltahawy talking about her definition of feminism. She says that she has no interest in being equal with men, who themselves are oppressed by patriarchy. She wants to be free. I, too, want to be free, so here’s what it looks like to me:
Freedom is safety. The ability to explore my neighbourhood at night without fear. The ability to wear a dress in public and not be stared at, insulted or harassed. The ability to date, love and have sex freely without being criminalised, jailed or brutalised. These expressions of safety might be achieved through political will to make legislative reforms, but that is simply treating a symptom. What I want is a world in which we do not need to deter people from harming others with a threat of punishment, because they know it is wrong. In a country where the institutions meant to keep us safe are also a source of violence, we can see that reactive policing of people does not achieve safety for anyone.
Freedom is a choice. The ability to decide how I express myself when I walk into the world without being reprimanded. The ability to have agency over my body and make reproductive and sexual health choices that serve me. To be able to live and thrive in any part of the world without the limitations of borders. We live in a world where we are so heavily policed for personal choices that don’t affect anyone else, because we are allocated roles in systems that are not of our making or choosing.
Freedom is rest. To live a life that is not constantly dedicated to the purpose of earning a living. Even that phrase, which has become so normalised by capitalism, is so utterly oppressive. Why would anybody have to earn the right to stay alive and who gets to decide who has succeeded and who has failed at earning this right? Capitalism and the way we have organised our societies around labour for profit, is by far one of the most oppressive systems of social organisation in existence. For me to be free of this, would enable both the safety and the choice.
All of what I have mentioned thus far seem highly hypothetical and quite frankly insurmountable given our current circumstance. So how do we achieve it?
I believe that many of us have been conditioned to accept that oppressive structures and their mechanisms are the laws of nature that cannot be tampered with. In fact, when people encounter sentiments that challenge and call for the destruction of oppressive systems, they will defend those systems even though they are being oppressed by them. It seems bizarre, but only proves the depth of the indoctrination by these systems. It is not a quick fix, but I believe in the value of conscientisation that erodes indoctrination slowly but surely. We must also do the deep work of restoring humanity. A humanity which is constitutive – meaning that your humanity is co-created by mine.
As we expand this discussion, the how will become clearer, but as we contemplate freedom, there must be the use of vivid imagination of ways of social organisation that does not fear leaving this world behind. If we are to move forward with freedom, we cannot take anything from this world with us. Freedom requires bravery.