This article was first published in Politicsweb.co.za on 8 March 2023
CAUTION: Once damaged, freedom is hard to restore
A few years before his untimely death, iconic reggae superstar Robert Nester Marley – monikered Bob Marley and the Wailers – penned something entitled ‘Redemption Song’. In it, he says, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds”. Then and now, this song gave me an impression that there is something sinister that befalls one’s mind due to extended periods of enslavement, oppression, repression, and colonisation. Whilst we know officially that South African apartheid lasted about 50 years, historians are also clear in their minds that colonisation of Africa reared its ugly head in the 1500s, - which I assume can put in the same class as ‘modern colonialism’ that emerged after Africa’s partition at the 1884 Berlin Conference. Bob Marley was obviously fixated on classical 17th -18th century African western slavery, which he dramatised in ‘Buffalo Soldier’. However, in the late 1970s, his focus drastically shifted to pre-independence colonialism in Africa that technically ended with South Africa’s majority rule in 1994.
However, if one goes further back into human history, there is evidence that primitive mankind thrived on military conquests; and the fruits of prevailing over another nation was enslavement of the vanquished. Thus, every time I see a ‘historical’ documentary on Discovery, National Geographic or History channel, the glory of Roman, Greek and Egyptian architecture that now passes as wonders of mankind is dwarfed – at least for me – on one basis. That those structures could not have been what they were – majestic – without slave labour. The argument can go on, but that is not my area of expertise, at least for now. Today, I want to emphasise the importance of maintaining and preserving the dignity and longevity of freedom – once one has it - because it is not easy to regain if carelessly misplaced.
Freedom is as much physical as it is mental. What this means is that we liberals must reconfigure our perception as well, so that when we preach the ‘gospel’ of free markets, constitutionalism, rule of law, small government, property rights etc., we should appeal to one’s intellect more than the material outcomes. Why I say that is obviously because Bob Marley said so! I have a good reason to believe his narrative. If you listen to most African apologists – actually, South African and Zimbabwean so-called pan African apologists – they are quick to assign failure of democratic governance to ‘apartheid’ or ‘colonialism’. Don’t lose me now. Work with me!
It is very common to hear ANC ‘governance failure apologists’ allege that “X of the Apartheid era are still intact” – even after almost three decades of independence. So much that there are electoral promises impossible to fulfill until such structures are dismantled? A good example is economic freedom. We are constantly reminded that the reason why most black South Africans are poor, and homeless, is because of white capitalist interests that are not keen to let go of the ‘levers of South Africa’s economy’.
In Zimbabwe, the late authoritarian dictator Robert Mugabe convinced millions of gullible citizens that if he expropriated land from ‘racist white commercial farmers’, his ‘land reform policy’ would radically transform the economic fortunes of the majority of black citizens. It seems the cycle of deceitful falsehoods continues even today with incumbent president Emmerson Mnangagwa. When he deposed Mugabe militarily in November 2017, Mnangagwa told enthusiastic crowds that his era of governance would render ‘illegal western sanctions ineffective’ because the country would be rebuilt by its own people (in local Shona language it’s “Nyika inovakwa nevene vayo”). Mnangagwa is facing another tough election a few months from now, meanwhile he and his apologists are blaming ‘illegal western sanctions’ for his governance failures. On every local, regional, continental and global forum, Mnangagwa and his surrogates are at pains to convince those who care to listen how Zimbabwe would have excelled had it not been for ‘illegal western sanctions’.
But just like brain damage in adults whose ‘motor and spatial functions can be recovered if undamaged neurons are stimulated to create new innervation’, damaged perception of liberal freedom can be repaired, however with a lot of hard work. Our mandate as African liberals is to defend and guard the environs of democracy so that the current generation does not get sucked into the nationalist mantra of denialist whataboutism. The present generation must not be cheated into believing whatever vices associated with failed nationalist governance can be traced to Apartheid or British Colonialism.
Zimbabwe has been ‘independent’ for 43 years, so why can’t Emmerson Mnangagwa prevail over Rhodesian ‘slavery’ and vices of ‘illegal Western sanctions?’ Most black South Africans remain entrapped in poverty and crime as their leaders loot state enterprises. Yet they are constantly reminded that it is the legacy of apartheid that keeps them poor. Their minds are being poisoned to accept mediocrity on the basis of history and feigned victimhood.
Zimbabwe is facing elections very soon. State propaganda will portray opposition parties as ‘agents, puppets of and sell outs to Western imperialism’, this to prey on the minds of gullible rural voters. ZANU.PF is cooking one big story of mental slavery so that citizens remain trapped in denialism – denial that liberal multi-party democracy, free and fair elections can work. ESKOM is going to collapse not because of ‘apartheid legacy and white capitalist interest’; it will collapse because of ANC incompetence and corrupt cartels doing the bidding for the elite ruling class.
South Africans and Zimbabweans must be reminded that liberalism works. It’s no longer an experiment. We can truly free our markets. We can enjoy free association, free assembly, free movement, free competitive media, unrestrained property ownership and equal opportunities. Let no one poison our minds with selective reference to apartheid and Rhodesian colonialism. We should emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because none but ourselves can free our minds.