Are we truly free? What is the nature of freedom?

According to the Oxford dictionary, freedom is ‘’the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.’’ Photo: Pexels

According to the Oxford dictionary, freedom is ‘’the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.’’ Photo: Pexels

Published Apr 27, 2023


Today is Freedom Day in South Africa, with the country commemorating the first post-apartheid elections conducted in 1994.

This watershed moment undoubtedly freed many South Africans from the metaphorical and literal shackles of apartheid. But now nearly 30 years later, how free are we?

To discover this, we must turn to those whose professions are to dissect such fundamental human principles as liberty and freedom.

According to the Oxford dictionary, freedom is ‘’the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.’’

However, a linguist, philosopher, religious leader or even an artist may look at the same word and deride a completely different meaning.

Here is how some significant historical figures interpreted the word:

Nelson Mandela

A beloved freedom fighter and the father of the nation, Madiba devoted his life to fighting to end the state-regimented inequality of the white minority rule regime.

The late ANC stalwart famously said that to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

Simon Nkoli

The LGBTQ+ activist highlighted the realities of existing within the intersections of different prejudices.

‘’I am black and I am gay. I cannot separate the two parts of me into secondary or primary struggles. In South Africa, I am oppressed because I am a black man and I am oppressed because I am a gay man. So, when I fight for my freedom I must fight against both oppressions…All those who believe in a democratic South Africa must fight against all oppression, all intolerance, all injustice,’’ Nkoli is quoted as saying.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Esteemed 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, ‘’You call yourself free? I want to hear your ruling thought and not that you have escaped a yoke. Are you such a one as was permitted to escape a yoke?

‘’There are some who threw away their ultimate worth when they threw away their servitude. Free from what? What is that to Zarathustra! But your eyes should announce to me brightly, free for what?’’

Malcom X

The American religious and civil rights activist was seen as highly controversial at the time of the movement. Erudite and eloquent, his speeches drew huge crowds and was often swamped by the media in public.

‘’Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you're a man, you take it.’’

Nina Simone

Nina Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was an American singer, composer, pianist, and civil rights activist.

Throughout the civil rights era, she recorded songs such as ‘’Mississippi Goddamn’’ and ‘’Four Women’’ that highlighted racism and other injustices.

When asked what freedom means to her, she simply replied that it means having no fear.

Audre Lorde

The US-born poet, essayist, librarian, feminist, and equal rights activist was also an advocate for LGBTQ+ individuals.

‘’I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of colour remains chained.’’

Carl Yung

In 1928, the trailblazing Swiss psychiatrist wrote in ‘’The Relations between the Ego and the Unconscious’’ that without freedom there can be no morality.

Yung founded analytical psychology with many of his teachings still respected today.

James Baldwin

Like Malcom X, Baldwin believed that freedom is not something that anybody can be given. ‘’Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.’’

The literary giant is best known for his books of essays such as ‘’Notes of a Native Son’’, ‘’Nobody Knows My Name’’ and ‘’The Fire Next Time’’.

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