Barney Mthombothi

There is, I think, a need for a serious discussion or  national discourse on the concept of freedom — its  meaning, the rights and obligations that come with  it. It’s a concept we have fought for, and many died  for, but that we evidently still don’t fully understand.

The entrance to the Apartheid Museum at Gold Reef City bears a pearl of wisdom by Nelson Mandela which seems to encapsulate the essence of freedom. "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." Pause and reflect on these words. They are profound.

Most of us are familiar with and treasure the first part of Mandela's invocation. We have thrown off the yoke of oppression after many years of struggle. We wax lyrical about how freedom has restored our humanity.

But it often comes off as glib and cliched, or it's become like a rag in the mouth of a playful dog. Despite the fact that it's so close to us we've actually lost sight of it, or its true meaning. In fact, what defines the period since the demise of apartheid or the birth of freedom is the scant disregard for and even abuse of that freedom. That shows in our actions. We exercise "our" freedom without due regard for how it affects others, or their rights. And our freedom, it seems, comes without responsibility or obligation. This sort of behaviour cuts across all strata of society.

It has become almost a daily occurrence that when people protest against say, lack of service delivery, instead of picking a fight with the council, they would barricade roads, set buildings on fire or stone cars, thus inconveniencing people who have nothing to do with their grievances. Striking workers go on the rampage, breaking things, trashing town centres, and woe betide those workers who decide to exercise their freedom by going to work. Union bosses or those in authority would say nary a word. It's just another day in sunny SA. Intimidation, or even death itself, has become part and parcel of the fabric of our industrial relations.

Corruption is another form of abuse of trust or freedom, especially by those in positions of authority. They seem to regard looting and plundering the country's resources as part of their freedom. These things are done with the sort of impunity that borders on recklessness.

That which we now have doesn't sound or feel like freedom anymore. It's a free-for-all.

There is currently a gnashing of teeth in certain circles over police action in Marikana. My dentures, I'm pleased to say, are untroubled. Police action is long overdue. Things should not have been allowed to come to such a pass. But to involve troops in the matter, or to put them on high alert, was not only overkill but irresponsible. Soldiers should be engaged only when the security of the state is threatened. Heavy-handed action during the raid was also uncalled for.

But all these deaths and this destruction, all the sorrow and misery, could have been avoided had everybody adhered to the basic tenets of freedom: live and let live. One doesn't need to wield a dangerous weapon to exercise one's right to protest or to strike. To bully or intimidate others, to trample on other people's freedoms has been allowed to happen for so long that it has become the norm. Intimidation has, in a sense, become part of the "negotiation" process.

If the law had been laid down from the beginning, long before Marikana, maybe the 44 deaths could have been avoided, families would not have lost their breadwinners and the country would have been saved the agony of such a traumatic event. It started with the violation of a great principle. We should go back to basics. Freedom is indivisible.

If the events of the past few weeks could compel us to treasure not only our freedoms but those of others as well, some good may yet come out of this awful episode.