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How Much Freedom Do You Have?

A blog post for the fabulous people at The Chirp Room

January 2010-

Growing up in post Apartheid South Africa I was taught to revere freedom. Like candy to the urchin freedom was the gift I excitedly cupped my hands in anticipation of but instead of the clamour of coins falling into my waiting palms, I was bewildered.  I smiled my thanks and held on tightly certain only of its fragility. What did it mean to be free?  The horrors of Apartheid were too far removed from me, its legacy was palpable, yes, but its essence was too far removed, too deeply buried for me to identify against. The only world I knew was the one I lived in, its antithesis was only a narrative.

And as teachers and parents to instruct me to be grateful for the mundane, freedom soon became a buzzword.  ‘Freedom!’ screamed the make-shift graffiti on school property jostling boisterously with ‘FTW!’ for pride of place. Back then of course, geeks were yet to reassign ‘FTW’ with the meaning ‘For the win’.

Above the chalkboard of my seventh grade classroom meanwhile, three years into the new South Africa, my English teacher put up a copy of the newly passed Bill of Rights. Freedom of the person, Freedom of religion, Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Association , Freedom of Movement. ‘Freedom of expression,’ my teacher would one day tell me, a faraway look in her eyes, ‘that one’s my favourite.’ It soon became my favourite too as it precipitated the aura around freedom to slowly unravel.

In high school, I would often be asked by snarky classmates in high-pitched voices and overstated airs of importance, ‘How much freedom do you have?’ Only fourteen year olds could believe freedom to be quantifiable.

What they meant to know of course was if I was allowed to parade myself like a witless doll on the faux piazza of the newest northern suburb shopping complex, staying out late doing God alone knows what fourteen year olds do. Freedom back then was defined in relating our whims against those who had the power, parents and teachers, to stifle it.

I’m still not sure how much freedom I have. Of course now my freedom is not governed so much by parents or teachers as it is by the shackles of my own mind. In Erich Fromm’s The Fear of Freedom relates the individual to the social in an intriguing treatise on what it means to be free-

What is freedom as a human experience? Is the desire for freedom something inherent in human nature? Is it an identical experience regardless of what kind of culture a person lives in, or is it something different according to the degree of individidualism reached in a particular society? Is freedom only the absence of external pressure or is it also the presence of something else-and if so, of what? What are the social and economic factors in society that make for striving for freedom? Can freedom become a burden, too heavy for man to bear, something he tries to escape from? Why then is it that freedom is for many a cherished goal and for others a threat?

Is there not also, perhaps, besides an innate desire for freedom, an instinctive wish for submission?

July 2011-

This year, we’ve looked on in awe as one by one the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya took to their streets in defiance of tyranny, demanding “freedom”. For the people of Egypt and Tunisia the freedom they won was almost a palpable thing. It was a lifting of the spirit, an unclasping of well-worn shackles. Cairo soon began to scream freedom, not just from deep within its people but also its streets.  Street art, unseen in Egypt previously, began flourishing expressing the hopes, fears, anguish and distress for an uncertain future. And that I think is freedom: A physical and mental space that allows for the expression of individuality without the pressure of conformity.

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