"The time has come to accept in our hearts and minds that with freedom comes responsibility." Nelson Mandela said these words standing before Parliament in 1995 while giving his State of the Nation address as President.
At a time when our very ideas and practice of freedom seem to be under threat from a series of sinister acts and behaviours by those who would profess to care for this freedom, it is perhaps a most opportune time to reflect on the exact nature of freedom in the South African context.
As Mr Mandela’s words suggest, the health of freedom rests on the level of responsibility it is accompanied by. As we celebrate one of South Africa’s greatest milestones on our journey to emancipation, we must examine ourselves as society and ask the question: Are we being responsible?
Given certain advances and improvements that South Africa has experienced post 1994, it would be easy to respond positively to this question. To do so without a critical observation of the state of affairs on the ground poses the danger of abetting a continuing exclusion of the most marginalised people in our society.
It can be argued that some have never seen the freedom we pride ourselves on. As economist Thomas Piketty pointed out at the 13th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, South Africa is home to the biggest inequality gap in the world. When 2.2-million South Africans are missing a meal a day and one in 15 children die before their fifth birthday due to malnutrition, we must ask where those conversations disappear to when we stand in fury at an injustice.
When an estimated 200 000 people have no homes to go to, we must reflect and ask ourselves what our individual actions against poverty are. Freedom cannot be considered as achieved before a consideration of all South Africans is made in relation to dignity and justice. In exercising freedom, too often we elevate obvious instances of injustice. While the level of outcry often seen in media and social discourse is commendable, we risk the danger of exercising freedom irresponsibly.
Twenty-three years into a democratic South Africa it can no longer be good enough that we don’t feel personally responsible for being part of the South African solution. Everyone has it in them to extend a hand and restore dignity in a neighbour’s life. And everyone has it in them to contribute to the combating of systemic exclusion.