Freedom and the inconvenience of responsibility

Professor Mias de Klerk

Whether we are from the previously oppressed or the oppressor, we were all freed from our respective chains in 1994, so that we all can bask in the wonderful light of living in a free and equal society.

But what is the meaning of freedom?

“Freedom” stems from the word “freodom”, encompassing meanings such as: self-determination, exemption from despotic control and civil liberty.

When we reflect on freedom, there are three kinds of freedom we need to consider:

freedom from “something”;

freedom to do;

and freedom as a mindset.

“Freedom from” something refers to aspects such as freedom from oppression and freedom from a despotic government.

Although obtainment of this freedom in South Africa demanded many years of struggle, costing the personal freedom and lives of many, this “freedom from” was constitutionally achieved in April 1994, and a government should now be able to fairly easily keep this in good state.

However, with a president and parliament who have been found guilty by the Constitutional Court for not upholding their oath of office, the previous public protector’s finding evidence of state capture and the president’s refusal to accept responsibility, and rather attempting to silence her, one can quite rightly question whether South Africa is really free from a despotic government.

True freedom from despotic oppression demands also freedom from more implicit oppressions by those in power.

The second kind of freedom is about the liberty to live your life the way to you choose to and to do what you decide to do, which is an inherent human right.

However, too often we see the misconception that freedom implies one can do whatever one wants to do; including to oppress others, to be selfish, unethical and corrupt, to exploit those who have no power, etc.

This is an immature perspective of what freedom means. Freedom is not infinite; self-determination does not mean freedom of action with disregard to its consequences.

If freedom is expressed indiscriminately, it ultimately lapses again in despotism and anarchy.

Unconfined freedom can be as devastating and disruptive than legalised oppression.

In the words of Madiba: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

With a history of oppression in South Africa, often there is a delusion that anything done in the name of freedom – above and beyond criticism.

However, it can never be just the freedom of a chosen few, but the freedom of all must be upheld.

Freedom of self-determination is not only a right, but “with freedom comes responsibility” (Eleanore Rooseveldt).

Even when we are free, we remain responsible and accountable for everything we do. With responsibility comes the duty to be respond appropriately and the liability to be held accountable for what we do.

As Jean-Paul Sartre said: “Man is condemned to be free”; it is exactly because I am free, that I cannot blame anyone else for my deeds and choices.

Freedom without responsibility creates a culture of hedonistic, short term gratification, promoting arrogance and hubris, widespread corruption and abuse of power for own benefits, at the cost of those you are supposed to serve.

As liberated citizens, we all potentially have the making of a Madiba and a Verwoerd in us, who we become is not from our environment, but the choices we freely make.

It is illogical and anti-freedom for the top echelons of the South African government to blame our tarnished history for their own corrupt and oppressing choices; choices that hurt the powerless, whilst that they remain ‘free’ from the liability to give account for what they do.

Thirdly, freedom is not only about constitutional freedom – “freedom and slavery are mental states” (Mahatma Gandhi).

If I don’t feel free, notwithstanding objective freedom, I am not free.

This may sound irrational, but the unconscious is a powerful part of the mind that controls our thinking and actions more than we often realise.

Popular calls from politicians to suppress or deny one’s conscience is an indictment of freedom, despotic attempts to deny and suppress freedom, to keep people’s minds locked in the chains of Apartheid and to neglect us our hard fought freedom.

As liberated citizens, we cannot obey this call because some argue it is better for a so-called majority.

Indeed, “in matters of conscience, the law of the majority has no place” (Mahatma Gandhi). We have the freedom to make our own decisions, and liability to do so responsibly.

We can choose to be enslaved by history, but we have freedom now, freedom to choose to do the right thing, freedom not to suppress our conscience in support of corrupt leadership.

But we do not have the freedom not to be responsible, because “freedom can never be taken for granted” (Mandela).

Being free from oppression and having free choice is a wonderful; but it is a delicate and fragile gift that we must cherish, nurture and safeguard for generations to come.

If we don’t preserve it with responsibility, it will inconveniently drop on the floor of despotic anarchy, shattering into thousands of pieces, never to be repaired again.

Mias de Klerk is a professor in Human Capital Management and Leadership at Stellenbosch University Business School (USB)