OPINION | Freedom Month


Freedom Month is a good time to reflect on the power, challenge and meaning of freedom. About 30 years ago on April 27, 1994, millions of South Africans headed to the voting station for the first democratic election in their country, writes Andreas Peschke for Sowetan.

For many it was the very first time to cast their vote at all. It was a momentous day for freedom. Watched by the whole world.

Screenshot© Sowetan

In Germany, we had our watershed event five years earlier. In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, paving the way for the reunification of Germany and the liberation of many countries in Europe from communist rule. I remember these days very vividly, and very personally. Because up until that day, I lived beyond the Iron Curtain in Eastern Germany. I would not have been allowed even to travel to Western Germany. So the fall of the Wall was a liberation for millions of people, and for myself.

So what does freedom mean? It means the freedom to think what you want. To say what you want. To read what you want. In former Eastern Germany, like in apartheid South Africa, there was serious political censorship. Books that you were not allowed to read, music you were not allowed to listen to. There was also no freedom to vote for who you wanted to vote for. In South Africa, not to vote at all for the majority of the population. The Bill of Rights in the South African constitution is an answer to these injustices – as is our Grundgesetz in Germany.

So political freedom is important. It also includes the right to determine your own future. South Africa rightly puts a lot of emphasis on the fact that its own sovereign choices as a country be respected, in fact, any country’s sovereign choices within the bounds of international law. I would add that if you look at Eastern Europe for example, Ukraine should also have a sovereign choice with who to associate and where to look for security. And it would be high time for Russia, her big neighbour, to accept these choices.

But freedom is much more than political freedom. Freedom icon Nelson Mandela once famously said: “Freedom alone is not enough without light to read books at night, without time or access to water to irrigate your farm, without ability to catch fish to feed your family.” In other words, political freedom is incomplete without social freedom. It needs to be coupled with the social upliftment of the population. Where people live in poverty, they will hardly be able to enjoy their political freedom. Youths need to be able to find jobs, in order to be able to express their political rights.

Freedom sometimes also must mean a duty to do the right thing. Friedrich Engels, philosopher friend of Karl Marx and quoting another German philosopher, once stated: “Freedom is the insight into necessity” (“Freiheit ist die Einsicht in die Notwendigkeit.”). Look at the terrible situation in Gaza. The conflict must be stopped. And it must be an expression of our freedom to work for a just and fair two-state solution. A two-state solution in which Palestinians will be free to have their own state. And in which Israelis can finally live in security.

Can there be too much freedom? I don’t think so. But I think freedom needs to be protected, for example against arbitrariness and disinformation. In the age of AI and social media, we all have a duty to make sure that freedom goes hand in hand with truth. Lies and wrong information undermine our democracy and freedom. Let us expose them. Remember, every one of us has a responsibility to do so. To determine what is right and what is wrong. And not to spread what we know is wrong. Everybody is free to defend freedom.

Freedom is beautiful. But it is a fragile beauty. It does not come by itself. It needs to be hard won. Like South Africans did in decades of the freedom struggle before 1994 – and Germans in Eastern Germany did in their peaceful struggle against communist rule in 1989. Thus, freedom must never be taken for granted. We must defend it and win it – over and over again, every day. In my opinion, this is the message of Freedom Day.

c. Sowetan

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