Freedom is not absolute in South Africa and never will be. In fact, the notion of absolute freedom, while it sounds good to say, is an absurd fallacy. Our high rates of reported gender-based violence and extreme poverty have very little freeing about them. Freedom Month in all its glory is multiplicitous, filled with beauty and horror. Maybe we should take stock of what is wrong about this month to understand our freedoms and what is right about it.
(Trigger warning: This article contains descriptions of gender-based violence and sexual assault that may be difficult to read. We encourage you to care for your mental health, safety and emotional well-being.)
Freedom is not absolute in South Africa and never will be. In fact, the notion of absolute freedom, while it sounds good to say, is an absurd fallacy. When the fall of apartheid heralded a new dawn, non-racialism was all we were presented with. There has never been any concern for intersectionality. Yet South Africa has been exposed as the most unequal society in the world. The South African Constitution is one of the, if not the most, progressive in the world. Yet it falls flat at implementation. The Covid-19 pandemic shone a dreadful light on our ugliness as a society. Our high rates of reported gender-based violence and extreme poverty have very little freeing about them. Freedom Month in all its glory is multiplicitous, filled with beauty and horror. Maybe we should take stock of what is wrong about this month to understand our freedoms and what is right about it.
Feeling safe is paramount to freedom. It is the cornerstone of a well-functioning community to be in spaces that are non-violent and peaceful. The structures within South Africa to affirm safety are not forthcoming though. Gender-based violence (GBV) is unfortunately synonymous with South Africa. It is a pandemic that disproportionately affects women and girls in our country. Our country, like much of the world, thrives on patriarchy. Our structures, from state to family, are patriarchal. At the core of our beloved land are the mothers that keep us afloat without acknowledgement. Households are headed by our gogos and mothers. Yet South Africa runs on the power that men hold. These leadership roles that are assigned to men perpetuate a dominance that has never been sustainable. This filters into the violence perpetrated against women. People of all genders experience violence, but most often women and children are the victims. In 2009, more than half of the women killed in South Africa died at the hands of their male intimate partners. Another chilling statistic is that between 25% and 40% of South African women have experienced sexual and/or physical intimate partner violence in their lives. This also extends to emotional and economic abuse by an intimate partner. There is nothing safe and comforting about these numbers and the studies that expose them.
In 2019, the rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana shocked our nation and the world. Fears are understandably internalised and there was no doubt we were worried about our safety. The government’s response was to tighten the laws addressing GBV. This was mainly fuelled by our collective outrage. It also meant there was political will to protect women and children and ensure that survivors stood a chance to receive justice.
The three anti-GBV laws President Cyril Ramaphosa signed this year demonstrate an intention to protect survivors. For instance, applying for an interim protection order does not require one’s presence in court. More key aspects are the introduction of the sexual intimidation offence and making the particulars of convicted sexual assault offenders publicly available. The paper these laws were signed on carries no weight without effective implementation. Global Citizen’s southern and East Africa, Sonwabise Mzinyathi said it best: “[W]hile the Bills are set up to protect and support victims post abuse, we want to send the message that the best remedy is no abuse at all.”
The adage that “prevention is better than cure” rings true here. South Africa can pinpoint its entry into the world as a democratic state with freedom for all in 1994. But did it overlook fundamentals like safety? A resounding “yes”. Apartheid was characterised by its violence against freedom. Violence in post-apartheid South Africa is a societal facet through and through. Do we introspect enough? Do we ask how we contribute to spaces that compromise safety? Do we overlook that comment from a friend or family member that informs rape culture and misogyny? Safety begins in the personal spaces we occupy. It needs to be upheld by legislation, structures and a meaningful intention to maintain it. That is freedom.
I spent the traditional Pride weekend in Cape Town this year at a caucus for political leaders who identify as queer. It was memorable, glorious, educational and, most of all, illuminating. The LGBQTIA+ history in South Africa is tied up in rights for queer people and the ongoing struggle against a society that is phobic to the point of violence. I can’t help but think of how many of us kiki each weekend, going to balls and groove with no fear. As it should always be. I live in a “mind your business” neighbourhood. I am a queer woman of colour and I have privileges that Black queer bodies five kilometres away do not have. The term “corrective rape” is an indictment of South Africa. It also having its etymological roots here makes it more damning. The attacks on queer bodies in our country do not align with our Constitution at all.
The rights of the LGBQTIA+ community are protected in Section 9 of the Constitution, which forbids discrimination on the basis of sex, gender or sexual orientation. The supreme law of the land guarantees this right. Yet it again exists on paper as a blanket protection that frays when we try to wear it. The force pulling apart the threads of that blanket is hate crimes. Last year President Ramaphosa addressed the violence against the LGBQTIA+ communities in South Africa on Freedom Day. Activists called on the president to sign the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill into law. Public hearings on the Bill have only opened this year, four years after it was introduced.
At the political caucus workshop I attended, our group had an impassioned conversation about discourse. The continual meetings and introduction of laws and well-intended procedures of justice were constructively criticised. But the same question kept popping up. It was not a light-bulb moment but more a repeated revelation. Are meetings and problematising enough? Do we discuss too much? Is the law enough? NO! They will never be enough for freedom. Our laws give many freedoms to all South Africans, but societal mindsets have to change. These things begin on the ground. Do we call out those in our daily lives enough? Do we support enough? Do we follow through when we announce we provide safe spaces for vulnerable people? Do we check our privilege even as queer people?
A 2020 household survey, the National Income Dynamics Study–Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS–CRAM), reported the extent of unemployment and hunger in South Africa as a result of the pandemic. It found that at least three million South Africans lost their jobs in the lockdown of February–April 2020. Two million of these were disadvantaged Black women.
I first heard about extreme poverty at the beginning of the pandemic. The study of poverty broken down to its simplest form is a numbers game. The World Bank defines it as a person living on less than $1.90 a day. In South Africa, our food poverty line is now R624 per person per month. This is the “extreme poverty” line: the amount of money that one person needs to afford the minimum required daily energy intake. I am no expert in economics and impacts, but at best this is ridiculous. These measurements draw conclusions based on living standards no one in a free society should have. Poverty does not start and end solely with food. Access to shelter, running water, electricity, safe and reliable public transport, healthcare and so many other factors contribute to poverty. These are the intersections amiss yet again. The calls for a basic income grant (BIG) have been heard and even acknowledged by the president – but, again, only acknowledged.
Is this another bill in the making, followed by years of deliberations? Policy and statistics go back and forth as people go hungry. Many South Africans are poor for no other reason other than being poor. They are born poor into poor circumstances. Having a meal is uncertain most times. When meeting one’s basic needs is precarious everything else suffers a domino effect. Healthcare, including regular dental visits, is seen as a luxury. The degrees of poverty also play out in access to education and support structures to continue schooling. Do we take poverty into account beyond food? It seems rare. Housing is critical: a safe space to exist in. Food on the table and the ability to prepare it and afford it. What are the variables surrounding the basics of living daily life? There are so many that haven’t been mentioned. The majority of South Africans live from hand to mouth. The extreme poor fight daily battles to just exist on the bare minimum. This is not freedom; this is survival. Our government has the knack for legislation, so how about an active supreme policy like the BIG to keep people out of the extremities of poverty? Freedom is not having to worry about where your next meal is coming from. To be free is to have the secure notion that your basic needs are taken care of.
Nelson Mandela made an impassioned speech at the Cape Town City Hall in 1990, after his release from prison. One part of it plays in my mind often: “I extend my greetings to the working class of our country. Your organised stance is the pride of our movement. You remain the most dependable force in the struggle to end exploitation and oppression.”
At the time, this gratitude was well received and even admired. But decades later, being dependable is doing the working class no good. No one was born to suffer – or at least not to continue so till the end of your life. South Africa’s unemployment crisis has been described as a bloodbath. In the fourth quarter of 2021, the unemployment rate hit 35.3%. Our country is not creating enough jobs or making up for existing losses.
The level of a person’s education directly impacts their ability to find work. Section 29 of the South African Constitution also states that “Everyone has the right to a basic education, including adult basic education. Our school dropout rate tripled from 230 000 to 750 000 in May 2021. Do we take note of the intersecting factors here when a child drops out of school? The lack of opportunities decreases. The ability to be upwardly mobile in terms of employment and quality of life decreases. So many things fall through the cracks from one pivotal moment like dropping out of school. Add living in extreme poverty to that? This is the reality of many poor Black South Africans. It is the normalisation of having to struggle for basic needs that informs our humanity and equality. Equality is not real in South Africa. It is a policy document that never extends to all its people.
Has this pride in the working class stood the test of time? Do we actually take stock of our most vulnerable? While being poor with no opportunities, they are not free. They are not free until equality is grounded in equity. An equal footing is restorative and can end exploitation.
We are only as free as a safe woman and child.
We are only as free as a safe LGBQTIA+ person.
We are only as free as a working-class person who can afford to live.
We are only as free as someone who receives employment and other opportunities to flourish without having to perform their poverty for the gatekeepers.
Our freedoms have multiple truths. As individuals in this beautiful and complex land, we need to evaluate how we contribute to a collective freedom. To take action and use our privileges to amplify voices that deserve to be heard. The time is now to be a functional and intentional ally to those who have no basic freedoms. No one is free until everyone is free.