South Africans do not all agree on the meaning of freedom. Whenever there is talk of the need to achieve economic freedom or the need to protect the freedom to be different, it becomes evident that we do not all mean the same thing when we talk about “freedom”. Maybe it is time to reflect more deeply on what we mean when we talk about freedom – before “freedom” becomes a meaningless cliché only trotted out by politicians when they want to stop us from thinking critically.
Last week President Jacob Zuma was on top form when he responded to the debate on the presidency’s budget in the National Assembly. In his speech a jovial Zuma lectured DA Parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane, telling Maimane that he and his family were very fortunate to be living in a free South Africa, noting that this freedom was attained through the blood, sweat and tears of many selfless freedom fighters, in a liberation struggle that was led by the ANC.
We are indeed fortunate to live in a country where basic political freedoms as well as basic economic freedoms are protected in the justiciable Constitution. We are fortunate that the ANC, as the most prominent liberation movement in South Africa, ensured this expansive protection of freedom in the Constitution.
However, the gap between the promise of the Constitution and the lived reality of ordinary citizens can sometime look insurmountable. As I was once told when I spoke at a workshop in an extremely impoverished community: “We cannot eat your Constitution and your rights.”
The indisputable fact is that despite a dramatic improvement in the well being of most South Africans since the ANC came to power after the fall of apartheid, all of us are not equally free. As the Constitutional Court remarked several years ago:
We live in a society in which there are great disparities in wealth. Millions of people are living in deplorable conditions and in great poverty. There is a high level of unemployment, inadequate social security, and many do not have access to clean water or to adequate health services…. For as long as these conditions continue to exist that aspiration will have a hollow ring.
Too often politicians talk too glibly about freedom, as if it relates only to the right freely to choose those who represent us in Parliament. While this kind of freedom is of vital importance for the restoration of the full dignity of all South Africans and to protect us from the kind of tyranny that prevailed during the colonial and apartheid eras, it ignores the lack of economic freedom faced by many South Africans.
The problem of how to achieve a semblance of economic freedom as promised by the Constitution is a vast and complex topic, better left for another day.
Instead I wish to reflect on another form of freedom that too many South Africans (especially from an older generation) lose sight of or undervalue. That is the freedom to choose how you want to live your life; the freedom to be different; the freedom not to conform to how others expect you to live your life.
A trio of young men from Johannesburg (Ashwin, Lee-Ché and Rogue) who call themselves the Vintage Boys personifies this kind of freedom. (See video above.)
They revel in being different. Shopping in what looks like bargain clothing stores they create their own style by “editing” the garments. That is, they take to the garments with a pair of scissors and needle and thread and create something new. The creations that emerge are always fabulous and unique. Sometimes they challenge the traditional gender categories. Judging from the YouTube video, the outfits are never boring.
In the video clip one of the young men bemoans the fact that South Africa remains essentially a very conservative country. “Many people still carry the Apartheid with them and because they were not free, they don’t want us to be free.”
The young men rebel against traditions, also deeply entrenched traditions about how gender should be performed.
For me, Ashwin, Lee-Ché and Rogue are poster boys for a certain kind of freedom protected and promoted by the Constitution. By breaking the rules of how men are “supposed” to dress, they assert their agency as human beings and celebrate the freedom that our Constitution guarantees.
Of course, many South Africans do not have the freedom to make the kind of choices that Ashwin, Lee-Ché and Rogue can make because of economic deprivation. But that does not mean that these young men are not every bit as revolutionary as any fighter marching in their red berets to demand economic freedom.
It is by breaking the many of the societal rules (without harming anyone in the process), rules that were also enthusiastically promoted and enforced by the apartheid government, that they create their own meaning of what it means to be free. They challenge traditional stereotypes about our country and our continent through their creativity, energy and verve.
They might not be aware of this, but what these three young men are doing were foreshadowed by Justice Albie Sachs in 1998, when he wrote the following in a concurring judgment in the Constitutional Court case of National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality and Another v Minister of Justice and Others:
The acknowledgment and acceptance of difference is particularly important in our country where group membership has been the basis of express advantage and disadvantage. The development of an active rather than a purely formal sense of enjoying a common citizenship depends on recognising and accepting people as they are…. What the Constitution requires is that the law and public institutions acknowledge the variability of human beings and affirm the equal respect and concern that should be shown to all as they are. At the very least, what is statistically normal ceases to be the basis for establishing what is legally normative. More broadly speaking, the scope of what is constitutionally normal is expanded to include the widest range of perspectives and to acknowledge, accommodate and accept the largest spread of difference. What becomes normal in an open society, then, is not an imposed and standardised form of behaviour that refuses to acknowledge difference, but the acceptance of the principle of difference itself, which accepts the variability of human behaviour.
For some South Africans this radical form of freedom is not easy to cope with. Radical departures from the status quo are seldom embraced by a society – especially an essentially conservative society in which great fear accompanies any form of change.
In the video the three men are shown walking down the streets of Johannesburg in their fabulous outfits while men and women on the street look on.
At one point in the video one of the onlookers being interviewed (a soberly clad older gentleman) expresses disapproval of the way the three young men are dressed because that is not the “proper” way in which an African man should dress. Ironically, he indicates that the “proper” way an African man should dress is like a boring middle class heterosexual man from Europe. But the irony is lost on the interviewee.
(I would contend that it is the same kind of attitude that led to the ban on the wearing of overalls by Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) legislators in the Gauteng legislature.)
Ashwin, Lee-Ché and Rogue shriek with delight when they hear the man say that it is the first time that he sees someone dressed like this. “Thank you! Thank you!” they exclaim while applauding. By expressing his disapproval, the man confirms to Ashwin, Lee-Ché and Rogue that they are indeed unique and fabulous.
Of course many South Africans will not follow their example. And that, too, is their right. After all the Constitution also protects the right of people not to be rebels.
If you want to follow traditional norms and conform to rules imposed by traditional culture or imported into South Africa through the process of colonialism, this too is your right – as long as your norms and traditions do not discriminate against or marginalise others.
It is a great pity that so many South Africans begrudge others the freedom to live their lives as they please; the very freedom they themselves enjoy because they happen to conform to some or other constructed norm or tradition.