As South Africa celebrates Freedom Day, nine citizens with different lived experiences open up about what freedom looks, and feels, like for each of them.
South Africa's Freedom Day, celebrated annually on April 27, is a national holiday that commemorates the first democratic and post-Apartheid elections that ushered in its first Black president, the late Nelson Mandela. And while South Africa has been 'enjoying' its fledgling democracy for 27 years, freedom remains a markedly varied experience for different South Africans.
From differently abled individuals and Black women to members of the queer community, we spoke to nine South Africans from multiple walks of life to find out what freedom looks like for them and others like them. We also asked whether they feel free in South Africa, and what the country can do better going forward to ensure that the freedom they have always imagined can be realised during their lifetimes.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
YoungstaCPT on South Africa's race-based freedom
"Freedom is a state of mind but also a very real reality. What freedom is, is a multi-loaded question and answer depending on which side of the fence you're standing on. Sadly, a lot of the answers are based on race, especially in South Africa. Personally I've only ever seen it in other parts of the world when I have travelled. Granted there is systemic oppression and inequality everywhere in the world but none quite like South Africa where it seems we keep going back further into turmoil.
Individually I feel free, but not as a people. All you have to do is look at the housing development crisis and the prison system to see who's free and who's not. Based on my observation, people of colour across the world are still very much oppressed, mentally and physically.
My 2019 album 3T spoke a lot about this but sadly, as a young man, I'm not even sure where to start sometimes. I do think our governmental structure has to change. At some point, those in power need to take responsibility for the nation's problems. If finances can be used for their actual purpose and put back into infrastructure, resources, education and healthcare, people will be able to overcome their daily challenges."
Thandi Skade on the strong link between freedom and inner peace
Thandi Skade, Content and communications specialist.
"For me, freedom means not only finding, but attaining inner peace. Growing up, I can't say that I felt truly free. I only started experiencing true freedom the moment I let go of my constant pursuit of approval from others. That desperation to fit in and be accepted disappeared and suddenly I was comfortable in my own skin. Freedom, for me, is not being weighed down by the shackles imposed on you as a result of others' beliefs.
From a human rights perspective, I am free because I have access to certain liberties that were previously denied but speaking as a woman in this country, I don't feel free at all. With the scourge of gender-based violence occurring every single day, I feel that my agency to do live out my desires as and when I want to, has been taken away from me. I have to think through potential scenarios and weigh up the risks just to decide whether I should leave the house or not.
I think the journey to freedom is constant. It evolves and it requires continuous learning. It also requires a willingness to be open-minded and willing to try and see life from a wide range of perspectives."
Phuti Mosetloa on freedom being synonymous with access
Phuti Mosetloa, Founder of Boswa Ke Bokamoso, an NGO that aims to bridge the gap between basic education and higher education, particularly in rural areas.
"One thing I've learnt is that you never really see yourself as lacking until you learn of other people's experiences and compare them to yours. Poverty may seem normal. As a child, of course, you're not conscious to the concept of lack because a lot is provided for you and your sole purpose is to be a child.
I only became aware of what I had and what I lacked in high school — that five rand pocket money you received once, or twice, weekly and had to save in case there would be no pocket money the following week or those school trips that made you feel out of place because you were wearing your only 'good' clothes from last Christmas. Now as an unemployed graduate and single mother, I constantly have to negotiate between buying data and a pack of diapers.
For me, freedom looks like access — access to information, resources and opportunities. I want to walk into a local library and find content that speaks to me as a Black womxn. I want internet that connects effortlessly regardless of my geographical location. I want job prospects that are considerate of my socioeconomic background. I don't feel free with a life where I have to constantly negotiate living and surviving.
What this country needs is to account for its blunders and see us as worthy. Worthy of quality education, worthy of security, worthy of financial freedom and worthy of good healthcare."
Makgosi Letimile on the urgent need for accessibility and inclusivity
Makgosi Letimile, Disability Inclusion Consultant and Intergration Consultant.
"I'm not free as a disabled person and Black woman in South Africa. Freedom is supposed to come with some sweet rewards but I don't get to enjoy any of those privileges. South Africa is not free for people living with disabilities, especially if you're Black. My hope is accessibility — I could never say this enough! Accessibility to everybody else might be just be about the road, the store or the area that you live in, but true accessibility also encompasses conversations, businesses and inclusivity in decision-making.
At the moment we're waiting for vaccines. The government had promised that the disabled, those living with co-morbidities and the elderly would be prioritised. However, our current reality has made me realise that it was all talk.
Accessibility is good for everybody because inclusivity means that the able-bodied get to live in our spaces without treating us as tokens or "feel-good" stories. When we're included as human beings, they'll see that our existence is a human experience as well. Disability is not something inspirational or that people need to be cautioned about. Being unable to leave the house, or to cross the streets, just because I'm in a wheelchair shouldn't be something that I contend with when I wake up every morning.
Freedom is accessibility and inclusivity. Until I'm able to access any place in Cape Town, or South Africa, without worrying about hurting myself, ruining my chair or not even being able to do it, I can never ever say that I'm free."
Keenan John Meyer on how liberating the mind is a pathway to freedom
Keenan John Meyer, Prized pianist.
"Freedom, to me, is the epitome of enlightenment. If I am living free from attachments and the need to operate from a place that prizes the ego, then I am free from suffering. I am, then, exactly where I need to be with my deep faith in the Divine as my guiding light.
I don't believe I am free in South Africa. Until we are willing to accept the bitter truth regarding our relations with each other as a people, we can't be free because we are slaves to a system, and a way of thinking, that seeks to entrench divisions between us. As a queer and Coloured person, the intersectionality of my oppression in this country is not prioritised by those in power. It is utterly disgusting that President Cyril Ramaphosa has not uttered a word on the inhumane killings of members of the LGBTQIA+ community in recent weeks. Why has he fallen silent? If the person with the highest honour to serve the country can't even defend me in my time of need, then I am not free.
We have multiple bodies of work at our disposal which speak to the liberation of the mind as a means to accessing freedom. One of them was written by the late Steve Biko and that gospel still rings true — our power starts with a shift in how we view and think about ourselves."
Rofhiwa Maneta on the ever-elusive nature of South Africa's freedom
Rofhiwa Maneta, Writer.
"Attuned to Fanon's definition of freedom as mapped out in Alienation and Freedom: "The disease is alienation. The cause is colonialism. The cure is revolution. The destiny is freedom." This is going to be a frustrating response but I don't know what freedom looks like — I'll probably know when we get there. I just know that it doesn't look like this. But, maybe in short, it's a life unencumbered by racism, capitalism, patriarchy and [insert any other -ism of your choice].
I feel free to some degree — and in some weird and perverse manner. I'm able-bodied, straight and middle-class. That makes maneuvering the world a whole lot easier. But that's also not real freedom because its foundation is made up of the bodies and lives of people with less privileges than me.
There's an album by Shabaka and The Ancestors called We Are Sent Here By History. The title alludes to the fact that history is circular — bound to repeat itself. The album ends off with a call to burn everything to the ground; burn every social structure that exists and just start from zero. I think that's the only way. There's nothing about South African life that can be reformed."
Janine Jellars on freedom being the ability to exist peacefully
Janine Jellars, Author of The Big South African Hair Book.
"Freedom, to me, looks like living an existence free from anxiety around gender-based violence, crime, unemployment and poverty, and the rising cost of living. Freedom wouldn't feel like we're constantly being crushed by this massive capitalist machine. Freedom cannot be this level of despondency, pessimism and anger I feel at people in power for squandering so many opportunities to actually serve the people of South Africa. I think freedom is being able to sleep peacefully.
I don't feel free. I've said it a million times — a woman's body is one of the most dangerous places to be in South Africa. This is not to take away from the fact that the LGBTQIA+ community here is under attack. Until I am free to do something as mundane as taking an evening stroll without being accompanied by anxiety, a taser and pepper spray, how can I claim to be free?
I have little faith that any of our political leaders – across parties – have the ability to actually deliver meaningful change. Too many are in it for themselves. I think we'd need a massive change in how we think about leadership and citizenship. I was 10 years old when we had our first democratic elections in South Africa, and I remember the excitement as my mother and grandmother cast their first vote. This Freedom Day is probably the most pessimistic I've ever felt about the state of our nation."
Candice Chirwa defines freedom as a lack of worry around existence
Candice Chirwa, Menstruation Activist.
"Freedom means leaving the house without thinking about whether this is going to be my last day. I am able to get in the back of an Uber or walk without having to worry about being physically assaulted, or attacked, based on my gender or appearance. I'm a very anxious Black woman who is living under the guise of being free when, in fact, that's not the case.
Freedom for me is, actually, the ability to just be free and not having to think about my existence. In the context of Freedom Day, we are all free from the the shackles of Apartheid which limited us socially and economically based on the colour of our skin. However, I think women are still experiencing some form of Apartheid based on our gender. We are told that we are free but the numbers and statistics tell us otherwise. The way we experience patriarchy tells us otherwise. The fact that a man can drive a whole car into a restaurant in Rosebank, because he can't handle rejection from his ex-girlfriend, tells you otherwise.
We need new leadership representation! I'm tired of old leaders rotating the same status quo — giving us the same responses when asked about women and young children dying at the hands of men. More than anything, I would love to see a fresh form of leadership that is young and representative of the youth's experiences and narratives on the ground. In terms of policy, I would love more regarding menstruation, better access to health in general, and sexual and reproductive health too."
Karabo Kobue on how a fresh start could lead to meaningful freedom
Karabo Kobue, Student leader.
"Freedom for me is when, one day, the people of this land will be able to enjoy the fruits of this land — when people are given an opportunity to become anything they can possibly dream of.
I'm free to be an individual, but my freedom is restricted and threatened by various socioeconomic barriers. This shows that freedom is more than just liberation from racist past laws. For our country to achieve meaningful freedom, it means that we must start afresh. The end of Apartheid marked the first step in the realisation of freedom. For meaningful freedom to exist, we need to see more people like us being afforded opportunities to conqueror industries and spaces that are resistant to change.
We need transformation in all spheres, from our universities to the work spaces we hope to one day join. We need equity to help explore our potential and equitable socioeconomic support overall."