Vuyani Pambo30 April 2024 | 10:00

VUYANI PAMBO: Do South Africans know how freedom really feels?

How do we articulate or have conversations around how freedom should look when our minds cannot stretch far enough to reach a place where we were once free? Vuyani Pambo ponders this and what it means to be free in SA.

VUYANI PAMBO: Do South Africans know how freedom really feels?

FILE: Throngs of voters queue to cast their vote on 8 May 2019. Picture: Abigail Javier/Eyewitness News

“No fear. That is what freedom means to me” – Nina Simone

How do you explain what freedom is to a people who do not know any other reality outside the unspeakable drama of oppression and domination?

Harriet Tubman found herself in a similar position when she pronounced that she could have freed more slaves if only they knew that they were slaves.  

This kind of pathology is the reason why it has taken so much time for South Africans to accept that the freedom they were promised in 1994 was nothing but a farce.

There was a deliberate engineering to facilitate a certain type of forgetting. Several projects were created to delude the unsuspecting people of South Africa that the tables have turned and that we have a tabula rasa to begin anew. We were made to believe that our history will not have contemporary consequences. We were wrong. There is more than enough evidence that the freedom that we all so expected to arrive tomorrow never really became a reality.

The creation of the Union of South Africa was a matrimony established to crystallise the oppression of the indigenous people; black people. South Africa as we know it has un-freedom as its basis. How then do we articulate or have conversations about how freedom should look when our minds cannot stretch far enough to reach a place where we were once free? 

Maybe Nina Simone can assist us with this question. In an interview with Peter Rodis in 1968, she responded to the difficult question of what freedom is. Her response was succinct and compelling: “Freedom is a feeling”. She took a long pause before continuing to say, “No fear. That is what freedom is to me”. She then looked directly at the interviewer, and the crowd went completely quiet. Right then, one could almost feel that she had said something extremely important.

There is an understanding and somewhat an appreciation that we can never be able to quantify what black people have been dispossessed of.

The exploitation and the unjust expropriation have been happening for so long that stock-taking of what has been lost is almost impossible. From our history to our religion, from our minerals right down to our land, we have been stripped bare. Where all has been taken from us and where bondage is a mode of being both language and memory fall flat in helping us think about ourselves outside the schema of oppression.

In 1994, freedom was promised, and because one who has been under subjugation for long is gullible, we believed that things would change and that we too would have a taste of what it means to be free. To breathe the clean air of God without being suffocated. We bought into the illusion.

But where everything fails, our feelings never do. We became disillusioned with the never-arriving promise, our flesh and bones felt that it was not yet Uhuru.

The empty campaigns, slogans and t-shirts proved to be insufficient. We did not have to be told, but we felt it. The protests began, and the repression became more overt. Unemployment increased, guilt-tripping intensified, and we were told that we were ungrateful.

Then the killings started - Marikana, Life Esidimeni, Fees Must Fall, and others. Lies have short legs, and we eventually saw that for three decades, we were being played. It dawned on us that the technology that was used under apartheid to control and silence those in the margins was still operating even in the so-called new South Africa.

Nina Simone boldly tells us what freedom is. It might not be sufficient to give a complete account, but it points us somewhere. To have no fear becomes a vantage point from which we can explore how far the freedom we imagine can stretch.

No fear of sleeping on an empty stomach, no fear of darkness because our government might just take the electricity. To have no fear of taking our loved ones to hospitals because the services are inadequate is a signifier of freedom. To have no fear of bringing children to this world all because there are concerns about crime, gender-based violence, and poverty, is the starting point of freedom.

But this is not the case in this decaying South Africa of ours. In fact, the opposite is true. To be black in South Africa is to be a victim of many phobias.

On the 27th of April every year, we celebrate a Freedom Day that we do not feel. We celebrate a freedom that the majority cannot see. The hysteria around 1994 did not bring any tangible differences to the majority of the people. What we did receive was the right to vote, and unfortunately, those we entrusted to usher in the freedom that many shed their blood for decided to use their positions to fulfil themselves instead of prioritising the people.

They decide to be greedy instead of ensuring that there is a material change in the lives of the people. With all the power that the African National Congress (ANC) had, it refused to stay true to its promise that the land ought to be shared equally by those who work it. Fourteen percent of the land is shared among the majority. The minority enjoys an excessive 86%.

The ANC has disavowed its responsibility to redistribute land. It has denied its responsibility to create conditions that will decrease unemployment. The consequences of their failure to govern have increased crime, domestic violence, and drug use. We are a country rotting from within precisely because of the failures of the ANC to address some of the structural problems we have.

Thirty years later, we again have an opportunity to exercise this right, and it will be on us if we do not vote for an organisation that will truly usher in emancipation.

Vuyani Pambo is an Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) member of Parliament.