Freedom Corrupts Absolutely

A few key phrases have been drilled into the evolutionary routes we incur on our journey to becoming. Phrases such as knowledge is power, with great power comes great responsibility, and the freedom is coming tomorrow lyric from the movie/stage play Sarafina which cemented Leleti Khumalo’s place in our hearts.

During the peak of our political history, the road to civil war was paved with yellow police vans, generational dislike for canines rooted in PTSD, and a dream for freedom being the talk of the country. It was the dream of every black farmer who was stripped of his land and titles during the relocation process, the dream of every drunk uncle who as a young lad saw himself becoming a doctor, but the odds of the system traded his vision for the bloodstream of alcohol, isolation, torture, and violence.

The dream of freedom was reversing the integration of the white is right narrative in a state where being a tiny shade darker than the fairer skin was the difference between being killed for petty theft or getting away with murder. Though one may summarise freedom into a surface-level sentence, the elaboration of freedom itself led to a multifaceted discourse that could take another 400+ years to reach equilibrium with white privilege.

Just as humans evolve, language evolves as well. Be it social media colloquialisms, or the revisions of previous linguistic norms that enabled emotional abuse, which won’t go unpunished in our politically correct context of time, we have come a long way in shaping our society. However, one may argue that the more things change, the more they stay the same, and as such, I must ask, what does freedom mean today?

When the youth of 1976 protested in the dusty streets of Soweto, Sharpeville, and Imbali, freedom meant being liberated from an oppressive government rule. It meant I don’t have to resort to crime or extremely minimum wage labor to feed my family; it meant I receive quality education which enriches my mind to facilitate high-order thinking to contribute progressively to my community. Freedom meant I own my land, feed my family from my land, barter with neighbors, and live in harmony.

Given the nature of our state, given how our parliament is playing elaborate games of power at the cost of human lives, is this the tomorrow that carried the black spirit in every soprano, alto, and baritone ringing in the protest and freedom songs we sang back then? Was it our parents' dream to pass down struggle psalms to us in our current fight for free education? Are those in power conscious of how they are at odds with their own skin, and umzabalazo is one where we must face ourselves and see the monster we have become?

By now, most of us are aware that power corrupts absolutely, but what if freedom does the same? What has the meaning of freedom evolved into? Currently, we want liberation from self-hate at the hands of disgust at what power in the hands of a black man has done. I’m left with the impression that we are only meant to experience a degree of freedom balanced with control.

The danger of being free to employ anyone who fits the narrative of your agenda has led us to a state where, as Bongikosi Dlamini has recently lamented, "The very same youth of 1976 is making the youth of today suffer right now, girls have to pass sexual favors before being hired by the youth of 1976". We are still fighting for freedom. We are still begging with our bodies for a chance at a better life. We are still waiting for that freedom to come because today is not the tomorrow we were promised.

It is not that our leaders do not know any better; instead, it is the knowledge that they are free to get away with the most atrocious crimes that would take years to come to light due to their networks. Some may not see the light of day. Several cases fall at the hands of corruption with police who place profit over justice accepting bribes to make dockets disappear.

Today freedom means aspiring to be connected than qualified, it means having a backdoor in the legal system to defeat the ends of justice, it means building isthunzi around your name by taking part in twisted power games that initiate you in the upper echelon of society. Today freedom is understanding that merit is irrelevant. Progression that is free of questionable ethics is rare.

If we are to note that power without virtue renders your conscious null and void, what are we to make of the responsibilities that are at best on the receiving end of mediocrity? Are we supposed to accept that we cannot receive service delivery without headlines, reports, and legal procedures surrounding tender frauds? How did we go from freedom for all to every guluva for himself? Was it the evolution from communal agendas to individual pursuits of happiness and liberation?

Though the context of the situation has changed, we are fundamentally doing what we have always done as black people, making the best out of a bad situation. The problem comes with defining the best of the bad situations that have us bending the rules and abandoning morality for survival.

I believe no human is a stranger to the prisoner’s dilemma ensued in a me vs. him/them situation. Even when you become aware that for the common interest of a company's organizational culture, another person is more qualified for the job than you, you are less likely to recommend them above yourself. Your interest in survival precedes the interests of the company.

The line to measure whether there’s anything wrong with that is quite blurry, but as a wise warrior once said, “If it's only about aiming for power, then both good and evil mean nothing."