by Iswamo Kapalu

On 27 April 1994, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, at the age of 76, voted for the first time in his life. Many years of struggle and captivity, of fear and longing, built up to that moment. While he carried on his shoulders the aspirations and dying wishes of generations, in that moment, he too was a first time voter; a free man who sought a freedom and found it in his lifetime.

Mandela took responsibility for his own freedom, and in doing so, he took joint responsibility for the freedom of the millions of South Africans who voted with him that day.

In the years since, that day has become key to South Africa’s founding myth. It is an imaginary line that cuts sharply across our history; separating the old South Africa from the new. The line that separates the police state from the land of free women and men who are equal before the law that rules them.

But freedom is a notoriously tricky thing. The ever-changing face of tyranny makes it so that freedom itself is ever-changing. Though they stand apart in meaning, freedom and tyranny lean on each other for content: gripping each other like sound and silence: each meaningless without the other. So when the content of the tyranny changes, so must the content of the freedom. Those who thought themselves free must recognise themselves as captives of a new tyrant if they are ever to be free again.

In its constant evolution, tyranny, at times, takes the shape of a former freedom. The institutions erected to guard against an old tyrant become insidious vehicles for a new tyranny, and the old pursuit of freedom is used to oppress. It is for this reason that freedom, properly so called, is not a destination but an eternal journey. Along this journey it is necessary to meditate on the content of both freedom and tyranny and to recognise when they change.

Lebanese-American writer, artist and philosopher Khalil Gibran, once wrote of freedom, “If it is a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed. For how can a tyrant rule the free and the proud, but for a tyranny in their own freedom and a shame in their own pride?”

This is a question that must sit heavily on the mind of every African at this moment in our history. We must seriously question whether we grew worshipful of our freedom and whether, as a result, refused to admit its obvious flaws.

In South Africa, before we talk of “second phases” in our transformation, we must interrogate the integrity of the “first phase.” Before talking about adding economic power to the political power of the people, we must question whether such political power exists to begin with. For if there is undisputed suggestion that the reins of political power lie with parties, cadres and families, this cannot by definition be a democracy. And if the democracy is where we pinned our freedom, we must then ask whether we are still free?

The answer may be scary. All answers that undermine beloved myths are. But it is a question that is fundamental to the continued life of this nation and the continent that birthed it.