What do Free People look like?

By Thokozani Mhlambi

When Mandela and Tutu declared ‘Let us forgive one another!’ These words struck at the very foundation of white supremacy. Inherent in them was the central vision of the South Africa that was still-to-be-born. Reconciliation stood as a chief force which we, as black South Africans, would teach the world.

Indeed after the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, South Africa was to be the model and adviser to many other countries on transitional justice.[1] It simply left world leaders astounded, even our revolutionary friends in the African diaspora were speechless. Did we all agree to such a vision of reconciliation? Were we willing to forgive in such a selfless way at the time?

Now you may say, ‘It was the imperative that our God-given liberty demanded of us’. But were we  all ready for it? Had we counted the cost of doing so? Were we willing to defer our right to justice to the conscience of the oppressor and his god?

One thing for sure: we were all now wanting of peace. Mothers were eager to have their sons and daughters return from prison and exile. Elders were desperate to know where their relatives had been buried. We wanted a functioning economy, and jobs—we wanted to work. But was it not perhaps too soon? Should we not have waited a few more years, that the line between the oppressor and the oppressed could be demarcated once and for all? These are terrible questions to be asking 20 years down the line!

What would have happened had our leaders consulted with us first before taking on a posture of sainthood and reconciliation? Had we been given a clearer indication of the cost of our freedom, would we  still have agreed?

There is a lesson here for those who aspire to lead: in pursuing the right decision, leaders need to be sensitive to the  frame-of-mind of the people whom they serve. Even the right choice can be radically undermined if the people are not yet ready for it. That’s why the early Israelites in the bible, had to roam the wilderness for 40 years before they could enter the Promised Land. Although they had been released from the hand of the Egyptian Pharaoh, their mentalities were still in bondage. They did not behave like people who were now free. They simply did not have the courage and sense of responsibility which a free life demands, their collective memories were still filled with the terror of oppression.

As a result of their enslaved mentality, God had to supply them with handouts; He gave them manna bread to eat every morning and ensured that the clothes they had did not wear out. Now to switch back to our present situation, the child support grants, the old-age grants, are these not versions of our own manna, now being handed-out by the government?

There is hope in the story of the early Israelites: the handouts did not go on forever. A time came when the people were ready to fight, but the generation who had suffered the apartheid of Pharaoh had to die first. That is when the nation could enter the Promised Land.

Now what do free people look like? Free people are not afraid to make mistakes, but they are also open to course-correction where mistakes have been made. Their fate is not in the hands of “international investors”, they wait for no one when it comes to implementing. Free people learn from experience, they are not dazzled by the prospect of newness. They are keen observers and strive for understanding phenomena.  They know that their freedom cannot be bought (transactioned) with money; that it requires self-examination and diligent effort to resist manipulation and overcome self-interest. It takes sacrifice.

[1] See International Centre for Transitional Justice <http://ictj.org/our-work/regions-and-countries/south-africa>