Posters reading #ASINAMALI and #FEESMUSTFALL Photo: Okay

“Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift” – Paulo Freire

The 27th of April is celebrated as Freedom Day in South Africa, where we celebrate our first “non-racial” democratic elections that took place in 1994. It is a day that supposedly marks the end of slavery, colonialism, apartheid and the beginning of a new democratic dispensation. 1994 was the year South Africans received their freedom as the outcome of a negotiated settlement. We were celebrated globally as the “Rainbow Nation,” held up by the world as the beacon for human rights, the poster child for Africa.

There are key events, watershed moments so to speak, that have occurred since 1994 that have, for those paying attention, irrevocably shattered the myth of the rainbow nation; that have exposed the cracks in this illusions we South Africans call freedom; the broken veneer of freedom. The 2008 xenophobic attacks; the death of Andries Tatane in 2011; the 2012 Marikana massacre; the 2015/2016 Fallist movements and the emergence of Fallism as an ideology among black youth who are part of the  so-called “born-free” generation.

At a very basic level, freedom is the ‘right to act, +speak or think as one wants’; it is the ‘state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.’

The political violence of colonialism was “dealt” with in 1994 with the negotiated settlement that sought to work towards a form of citizenship, which was “not about where you are from but where you are at” (Pillay, 2015). This speaks to the preamble of the South African constitution where it states, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it.” This conceptualization of citizenship in South Africa was a departure from what the norm was on the rest of the continent, where other African states sought to reverse and clarify the colonial understanding of who had a legitimate claim to the land of Africa; of who was African. Unlike the rest of Africa, in South Africa we reimagined citizenship to be inclusive of the historical oppressor.

The economic violence of colonialism is the reason why South Africa has one of the highest levels of inequality and continued racialized poverty. The negotiated settlement of 1994 came with crippling neoliberal economic compromises that amounted to a pact with Afrikaner nationalists and big business that ensured that the economic violence of colonialism continued post-1994 (Bond, 2016). To name a few of these economic compromises:

  • The repayment of $25 billion apartheid era debt;
  • The formal independence of the Reserve bank which led to the deregulation of exchange controls leading to sustained capital flight out of the country into overseas bank accounts;
  • Allowing major companies like AngloGold to deregister off our stock exchange and move their primary listings abroad which has resulted in a permanent balance of payments deficit and gross corporate disloyalty to society;
  • The centrality of property rights in the constitution which limits options for redress;
  • The lowering of corporate taxes from 48% during apartheid to 29% post-1994 coupled with the demutualization of Old Mutual and Sanlam which resulted in the privatization of historic mutual wealth thereby ensuring the maintenance of white privilege and white monopoly capital (Bond, 2016).

To paraphrase a learned friend of mine; “the South African economy as it is right now, is fertile soil for a full blown revolution. History has taught us this.”

Consequently, access to money has become a key barrier to freedom in RSA. Money is the gatekeeper of freedom in South Africa, without it you cannot “act, speak or think” as you want. Money is the God of the capitalist society. This democracy of ours facilitates a prepaid freedom. It is a pay as you go system of democracy and majority of the people in this country simply cannot afford to pay. If you can pay, you can afford a good education. If you can pay, the law will work for you. If you can pay, you can live in a safe and clean neighborhood. If you can pay, you can eat healthy food. If you can pay, you can get quality medical care… the list goes on.

Freedom understood as the mere absence of direct coercion is a fundamental fallacy of liberal thought. The fear of economic destitution coerces in a manner far more insidious as the grasp of the Leviathan.

Besides the political and economic aspects of freedom, what I think is by far the most important aspect of freedom is our collective epistemology. The words of Paulo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed come to mind, “freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift.”

There is a substantive and qualitative difference between freedom that is gifted and on that is acquired. The latter is more appropriately termed liberation. Given the facts cited earlier, did we truly liberate ourselves in 1994? Perhaps, this is why we do not celebrate independence in South Africa but instead ‘freedom’? In the words of Toussaint Louverture, leader of the 1791 slave rebellion of the then Saint Domingue (modern day Haiti), “open your mind and you are free.”

Ashanti Kunene is an Intern for the Sustained Dialogues programme at the IJR


Bond, P. P. (2016, January 12). Why South Africa should undo Mandela’s economic deals. The Conversation, pp. 1-4.

Pillay, S. (2015, June 7). Decolonizing the University. Azania House, UCT. Cape Town: Africa is a country.