Freedom’s just another word until we put it into practice
Patience has turned to urgency and anger. Maybe we have five years to fix it, certainly not another 25
Liberty and freedom are not the same thing. Liberty is a state of rights, the absence of restrictions imposed by the authority on its civil subjects. Twenty-five years ago we were liberated from the restrictive and divisive state imposed on us by apartheid. In 1994, everyone became entitled to have an equal say in who would lead and govern us, as one country and one people going forward.
Liberation is an enabler for freedom but not freedom itself. We have achieved liberty but true freedom remains elusive.
Freedom is like safety – you must feel it as much as you must have it. No matter the height of the walls, the strength of the current in the electric fence, or the cyclic rate of the semi-automatic rifles I see flung over the shoulders of private security guards, if you don’t feel safe in your home, what’s the point?
Freedom is about the absence of constraints. If you feel angst you’re not free. Legislation and our wonderful constitution are prerequisites for its realisation but they are not freedom manifest – that is up to us, the people. Freedom may grant the right to do as you please but that can only happen within a society tolerant of differences, overwhelmed by common purpose and respectful of others.
Economic independence is a critical element of personal freedom. Being poor beyond some point removes personal freedom, that’s for sure. Not only does it limit your choice of what you can buy, be it for survival or indulgence, but it affects how you feel about yourself, how confident you are. Worse, you have to do the bidding of others when you depend on them financially. Being rich doesn’t bring freedom either, but it is easier to suffer in comfort.
Money itself is not freedom. Ill-gotten gains will imprison you, not free you. Only the prospect of earned economic dignity within a fair system of opportunity will provide economic freedom.
Financial prospects alone won’t do it either. Freedom means seeing a future worth investing capital, time and effort in. A future worth the risk. A country hell-bent on harvesting will never be free no matter its specific issues, assets or liabilities. We cannot operate in a vacuum, and the extent of our freedom is determined by how well we fit in, how highly we are regarded, on what terms we get invited to play.
Real freedom is to be found at higher levels of self-actualisation. We must feel personally secure, physically safe. We must know that the good guys will do well and the bad guys will go to jail. Freedom must be taken from those who take it from others.
It is not aspirational to want to feel safe when you go on an evening stroll alone – it’s normal. It’s not aspirational to expect to be treated fairly, on the merits of the situation, without bias of bullying or prejudice – it’s normal. It's not aspirational to want to be heard, to have your say and be listened to – it’s normal.
Freedom lies not in the right to education, or the right to get a job or the rights to clean water, sanitation, electricity or healthcare. It lies in the presence of such things, not in their promise.
Have we made progress? In rights? Hell yes, they’re enshrined in our constitution. In delivery, though, we have some way to go. It takes time and money and hard decisions need to be made before the environments they build enable the easier ones.
On a balanced scorecard the freedom inhibitors still outweigh the freedom enablers. We are not free.
Baggage, debt, racial and religious tensions (over the world), guilt, extreme politics – these are the ingredients that together build walls around and between us.
We do, however, have the experience gained from bad decisions, from bad behaviour. We’ve seen the consequences of wrongdoing, we know now what fails. We’ve learned from our mistakes.
It is not too late, but it’s close to being. We’re cutting it fine. Patience has already turned to urgency and anger. Maybe we have five years to fix it, certainly not another 25.
We’d better start moving towards that place of real, measured, felt freedom. Only once we get there can we start thinking about happiness.
• Mark Barnes is CEO of the Post Office.