Riaan Oppelt

Happy Freedom day to you. This is a special day for South Africans. It is a day so significant that its memory lingers in our sensory perception if we were alive and sentient on the day of the country’s first democratic elections. On April 27, 1994, Freedom had a smell, a sight, a feel, a taste and a sound. The sound of the excitement of those who’d fought and persevered and waited for a day in which their human rights would be officially recognized in the country’s first democratic elections. That day was almost fifty years in the making but it was also more than 300 years in the making. If you were around that day, you saw former President Nelson Mandela cast the vote for freedom that signified the change most of South Africa had pleaded for.

That day set the template for when South Africans have moments to celebrate, whether it was under the 1990s banner of the Rainbow Nation or the 21st century banner of “Proudly South African”. When South Africans celebrate on a massive scale, there is regularly a suggestion of conviviality, of a spirit of friendly togetherness despite many obstacles and many behaviours that usually prevent that feeling. Today, some South Africans may be rejoicing the victory of the Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher winning the Oscar for Best Documentary; not too long ago, it was the Rugby World Cup victory in 2019. We love to celebrate because we know there’s increasingly little to celebrate, so give us a happy occasion and we know what to do with it. Cynics make good points that these celebratory moments merely gloss over the deep unhappiness that festers daily in the country, that in these happy moments we have a collective amnesia about how bad things are. Others feel that it is exactly because so many South Africans know how bad things are that they mean to celebrate when there is something to be joyful about. April 27, 1994 set the template for this. 

Radio KC shares with us the “sound that sets you free” and seldom was there a truer word spoken, or heard. Committed to building our spirit of Ubuntu, of togetherness, of boosting our morale, of ensuring that we are all recognized and tirelessly serving the humanism of community and caring for each other, Radio KC’s “sound” has been there for us almost for as long as we’ve had democracy. It is, in fact, the sound of democracy that never relents and keeps its promise no matter how dire the days become, no matter how hard the work. Let us acknowledge it now because the days are dire and the sound is one we still need as much as we need the sound of a good song to uplift us.

In the sound that sets you free, I have been generously afforded some space to cautiously try playing my own notes on this communal piano KC provides, and today, with your permission, I’d like to feebly hit some notes while thinking about freedom. This day, April 27, remains a landmark; it remains a birthday we should always celebrate. Like all celebrations, we should also not overdo it and spare a moment for reflection. I shall try my best not to occupy this moment for you with too many bum notes but please be patient; I am, as ever, a beginner at this instrument of hope that has been there throughout history but not always been played that well.

The thing is, if we go by history alone, then our country has never experienced or enjoyed a prolonged sense of freedom at any point. History itself was never free if we consider that what was once taught as history was quite selective, riddled with bias and sorely lacking in facts. This is generally the problem with history: it has too many hidden spaces. Somehow, South Africa fell into many such spaces even as it showed its blatant notoriety to the world as of the mid-twentieth century.

Perhaps, the country was free and unexplored in the ten thousand years before European arrivals when, firstly, hunter-gatherers and then people who expertly herded cattle and sheep were living on the lands of what we now recognize as the Western and Eastern Capes. As of somewhere around the eight thousand year mark before European arrivals, Indigenous Khoe people in the southwest and Bantu-speaking people in the east, who had moved down from Central Africa, had some skirmishes but also interacted amicably. The clicks of the Khoe lingered in the language of the Xhosa as the neighbors traded with each other, sometimes married each other, sometimes fought each other and often left one anther alone. If we pause here for a second, this history does not sound out of place with our modern times. We can love our neighbors, we can interact with them, we can fight with them sometimes or leave them be and we will always respect the sanctity of each other’s houses. Unlike the ‘friendly neighborliness’ the apartheid government tried to sugarcoat its policies with, the Khoe and the Xhosa got the concept right, all those centuries ago.

By 1488, Bartolomeu Dias rounded the area at the Cape but the Portuguese did not succeed in securing a foothold in the country. They tried, of course, but quickly got the message that this would not be easy, as when in 1510, the viceroy Francisco de Almeida and a number of his soldiers were killed when they stole the Khoe’s cattle. For the next century and a half, European sailors touching base at the Cape traded with the Khoe but then went on their merry way. During these encounters, the Europeans learned many lessons that would go unheeded by the time Van Riebeeck came and erroneously entered the history books as some kind of founder figure. 

In 1647, for instance, a junior merchant for the VOC, Leendert Janszen, wrote in a report that stories of the savagery of the Khoe were biased and deliberately placed out of context, calling the origins of most skirmishes the result of the ‘uncivilised and ungrateful conduct of our folk’.  According to Patric Tariq Mellet, Janszen’s views of the Khoe were ‘highly favourable and respectful in comparison to Van Riebeeck’s approach. In general, Europeans painted the indigenes as no more than beasts… The report by Janszen was a clear recognition that the servicing port of Cape Town already existed but was simply not under European governance.’

Rather than go into the terrible history and legacy of European settlement after the arrival of Van Riebeeck, I want to ponder the possibility that, before 1652, European and African encounters could have gone a different way. Europeans could have touched down regularly at the Cape and at Kwazulu-Natal and something of a cultural exchange could have occurred over centuries that would have written, possibly, a profoundly different history. Settlement and conquest did not have to be the immediate priorities, and not at all about subjugating people on their own land. Extreme, pro-colonial arguments often point to western medicine and science brought to Africa as signs of the success of colonialism. However, not as much is said from that side of the debate about European diseases, food and vegetation that had enormously adverse effects on African indigenes around the continent—before you count the inescapable and brutal legacies of genocide and slavery.

Here, for now, is where I personally think notions of Freedom became compromised in the story of South Africa. The track record from the mid-1600s points to overwhelming, negative events that usually, each time, ended in a hard-fought victory after years of struggle, only for some of those victories to be short-lived or revealing themselves as false dawns.

When the Dutch were overthrown by the English, it did not immediately bring freedom to those who had been enslaved, especially at the Cape; in fact, it made some slave owners double down on the terrible treatment of their slaves. When the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833, many manumitted slaves had little to show for their freedom. Despite representative government in the Cape Legislative Council later that decade, the destitute circumstances of many freed slaves resulted in them occupying positions of servitude for a livelihood. As significant (and belated) as the abolition of slavery was, a better South Africa for all in the wake of it was a false dawn. According to poet and academic Gabeba Baderoon, by this point in history the bodies of black South African men and South African men of colour were already designated as criminal bodies, carceral bodies. According to Pumla Gqola, the bodies of black South African women and South African women of colour were by then already inscribed as expendable ownership, sexualized, subjugated and violated.

To skim through the rest of the 19th century is to rush through events like the Mfecane; the Great Trek; the settling of the Independent Boer Republics; the Great Cattle Killing of the Xhosa; the discovery of diamonds and gold; the wars between the English and the Zulu and the English and the Boers/Afrikaners, and the arrival of modern industrial capitalism to South Africa with the gold rush. In the tapestry of South Africa, all of these events were interconnected and lead to the unhappy 20th century and its more notorious story.

By 1913, the Natives Land Act deprived black South Africans of most of the country’s lands, crowding them into “homelands” while white South Africans claimed the majority of the country’s rural and urban land. It may not have been apartheid yet but land dispossession was much of the evil work done long before apartheid was institutionalized. It was the unjust deprivation of living space that all humans are entitled to around the world. Spatial engineering through policies like the Group Areas Act further deprived South Africans of colour of the limited urban spaces they had, of which District 6 was the key example. The forced removals of these South Africans to the Cape Flats created networks of socio-spatial imprisonment and distress that have endured and, sadly, perpetuate along the Cape Flats. This kind of distress is everywhere around the country, the distress of impoverished and unacceptable living conditions, creating over and over again the reasons why South Africa is, arguably, the most unequal country in the world. There is no freedom in that.

The journey since 1994 has carried not only the memory and the traumatic imprint of these histories of imprisonments. This moment of victory has brought forth too few subsequent victories. We can speak of an excellent Constitution and progressive laws but even around those, there are too many questions and disillusionments. The problem of the lack of freedom since 1994 shows in how many South Africans carry the imprint of apartheid psychology in the discussion on race. Race is a construct affecting all humans. It is a human construct and not a natural one: in the words of philosopher Achille Mbembe, there was no such thing as a black man until a white man invented one, invented the forced difference between people.

We are still imprisoned by the categorization of people, of pejorative associations with race. Each time we regard someone as “other”, each time we laugh or partake in a racist joke, each time a conversation about anything is premised on one kind of people being better than other people are, each time hatred is expressed for entire groups of people, we are still imprisoned by racism. Worse yet, we are then speaking the language colonialism and apartheid imposed on us; we are keeping those legacies alive—and such legacies remain alive enough in so many other bad habits and ignorant behaviours.  

State capture is a form of imprisonment. People we trusted and who many of us voted for betrayed the faith we put in them and imprisoned many South Africans in socio-economic traps they do not deserve. The ruling party still calls itself a liberation party but it is captured by itself in a deadlock that is tenuous and frightening; once again, the country is at stake but the ruling party cannot now be both rescuer and villain. Opposition parties are imprisoned by their own senses of privilege, by their ambitious scope and by the egos of their leaders; they seem to move in circles as much as the ruling party does, even if their circles are less vicious. The country is imprisoned by Covid 19, banned from contact with other countries more advanced in their vaccine rollouts than we are. We are once again isolated. 

On a more global scale, we are also imprisoned by rules that should be questioned. Each time that we agree to the dog-eat-dog world of neoliberalism, we then agree to the world that says human beings create a free market. We agree that they must compete with one another in it, irrespective of background, advantage and privilege (which is why the privileged mostly win that rat race because they have a head start). Each time we agree to sell ourselves as a brand, we’re partaking in the perpetuity of inequality even as we’re desperately trying to stay afloat. Each time we only take care of our own and forget that we exist because everyone else exists, we are not free. It is not easy to be otherwise, I agree; it is not easy to try to take care of many when it is hard enough to take of the few you have, or of yourself only. 

Yet, how much better has the world become following this “Me First” approach? How much better do most of us sleep in a world where pills, anxieties, disorders and depressions are more and more common in a strange cycle of supply and demand? Is a world where younger and younger children develop dependencies on anxiety medication the right world? Is a world where deforestation for more and more urban developments the right world, because in this world we overpopulate and the earth cannot carry us if we keep overconsuming? Is a world where this deforestation could directly lead to a pandemic like Covid 19 the right world? Is a world where we choose to ignore this and rather immerse ourselves in a whatsapp chat the right world?

Perhaps it is the right world but we are the ones not making the right choices as often as we can. Perhaps what we think are the right choices, the ones we are told to make, are in reality the wrong ones. It is not easy to change our ways because, mostly, our ways are what we think must be right. We mean no one any harm and just want to get on with our own business in life. But there was a time when this was not the case. In South Africa, especially, there were moments in which we all came together and heard one another. Those moments became too few, like family members promising to see each other more regularly but only meeting at funerals each time. 

Only the truth can begin to set us free. These are sad truths and we cannot keep wishing them away with marketing slogans trumpeting our happiness when this happiness is conditional. These are many bad truths, up against too few narratives of hope. There are too many stories of South African resilience, peddled as good news stories. Why should we always be resilient? Why should we always overcome struggles we never should have faced to begin with? Why does this lack of Freedom continue?

Questioning freedom does not make scoundrels of those of us who do so. In the strange ways love works, so do we apply our love to the country that loves us –despite our irregular stepping on its soil. To be a fan, a true fan of another person or a team or an entity, one has to see their right and wrong. The nation of South Africa is beset by rights and wrongs and, between these, lodged inside an uncertain area where many complexities unfold into more complexities. Nothing is ever as it seems. Our happiness and our anger are never as simple as they seem. Whatever is not in your story is in someone else’s, whether that person is standing behind you in a supermarket queue or whether that person is completely unseen by you. 

On our fingers, we can count the crucial tenets of what South Africa needed in 1994 and what it needs more than ever now. One of our fingers is named Education. We need education; our education is among the worst and most neglected in the world. The challenge was enormous in 1994 and the deck of cards was stacked against balancing out the scales of injustice for Education. For the majority of South Africans, the disadvantage in equal opportunity education was at a grotesque backlog in 1994. Through overambitious curriculum planning, too many vestiges of the legacy of apartheid-era education, gross negligence of schools, pupils and teachers, rampant corruption and abuse of power, unacceptable infrastructure and precarious lack of content, the situation is now worse and has been so for many years already. The truth is that it will become worse. Education has not seen freedom yet in South Africa.

In too many of our homes, we live inside the precarious space of intimacy. It is bad enough that the areas around some homes are dangerous, treacherous to navigate to the point where going to the shop to buy a bread means someone in the house may never come back again. However, there are some houses where it is as dangerous, if not more so, on the inside. We have heard the letters over and over again and we know what they mean: Gender-Based Violence (GBV). Too many times, someone familiar, someone intimate, will betray their responsibility and hurt someone they are supposed to protect. Too many times, someone will feel terrified and mistake the abuse they receive for love or the need for life if the threat of death is present. Too many times, this will continue because victim and perpetrator, somehow, both feel trapped.  Too many times, a young child will feel compelled to hug or kiss an adult they do not have to be forced to hug or kiss. Too often, someone a child trusts takes advantage of them in a way that could shape their life. Too often, a woman is hurt by a man she vowed her life to nurture and protect. Too often, someone with the respect of their community uses that respect and their standing as a shield to harm the most vulnerable in that community. Too often, someone is persecuted for the gendered or sexual identity they breathe air in. Too often, someone is violated, murdered and desecrated. Too often, others turn a blind eye, frightened and frozen.

This is not Freedom. We have not had Freedom in our homes yet in South Africa. Over hundreds of years, this has never stopped. If it is happening in some other home and not in our home, the problem is no less, and our homes cannot think they will be exempt while this lack of Freedom is so obvious. In too many of our homes, there is danger. Here, too, sadly, South Africa is a world leader and always was.

We are very afraid, some of us, to upset any apple carts, and to lose the little some of us may have. We may not do anything about another’s pain until a similar pain affects us and only then, we take action. Each time we forget to act like a community or a family, we are creating another prison and have already sent people there. We’re afraid to reveal ourselves because we will be targeted—both by the ones who mean to hurt us and by the ones who think that they’re saving us on social media; it can be confusing, unintentional or misdirected. Nobody should have outright power to choose to hurt others or to choose to save. Neither of these sound like the protocols for Freedom. These are the descriptions of spaces and times that are the opposite of Freedom. Many of us know Bob Marley’s words in ‘Redemption Song’: “emancipate yourself from mental slavery.” We sing it over and over again because we know we are still chasing that song.

Despite this infernal laundry list of negativity I’ve just provided, despite all these Complaints many of us are very good at it because the causes for complaints keep mounting, we still, somehow, keep perspective. We do that because we are better than our circumstances. Today, despite everything I’ve just said, we know the sound of Freedom—I hope we do. We know the sound of people coming together in harmony with no ‘if’s or ‘buts’. That is, to quote the novelist Vikram Seth, an Equal Music, of love, compassion, respect and recognition. If you don’t want to call it Ubuntu, or Proudly South African or Rainbow Nation you don’t have to; it does not need a title to move us. The best music is sometimes the music we have no name for and that makes it equal; the language is the harmony created by the voices and I daresay, no matter where in the world you are, you know a South African voice when you hear it. You hear the sound of Hope that needs to be fulfilled by a full orchestra, the sound of Freedom. 

27 April 2021

Riaan Oppelt is a daydreamer, a wanderer and someone born in Paarl. He lectures English at Stellenbosch University and tries to play music.

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