What freedom really means

That I received the Free Market Award in the same year that South Africa celebrates ten years of freedom makes it even more memorable and worth receiving. To be singled out as having contributed towards the cause of economic freedom makes me also think of what freedom really means and to pose the question: when can we and shall we call ourselves fully free?

Ten years ago, former President Nelson Mandela, speaking to a Joint Sitting of Parliament must have thought of this very question when he said, “My government’s commitment to create a people-centred society of liberty binds us to the pursuit of the goals of freedom from want, freedom from hunger, freedom from deprivation, freedom from ignorance, freedom from suppression and freedom from fear. These freedoms are fundamental to the guarantee of human dignity.”

Ten years later, President Thabo Mbeki, in his State of the Nation Address, further expanded on this notion of freedom by calling for “a world of peace, democracy, non-racialism, non-sexism and freedom from poverty.” For him, this also means the realisation “of a shared dream for international solidarity and friendship among the peoples, and the victory of the African renaissance.” He said that these “circumstances suggest that perhaps the time has come for the emergence of a united movement of the peoples of the world that would come together to work for the creation of a new world order.”

So in thinking about our freedom, I hear the words of Mandela echoing to us through the decade of democracy. I hear the goals of “freedom from want, freedom from hunger, freedom from deprivation, from ignorance, from suppression and from fear”, but I do not, as yet, hear what we are to do with our freedom. I do not hear what freedom can do rather than undo, what freedom can bring rather than wish away.

Perhaps it was still too early then to articulate the future. Then the book of apartheid had to be unread. The painful past had to be unravelled. The ropes of oppression that bound us, both black and white in an inhumane system, had to be undone and all forces in society harnessed for a better future.

Ten years down the line, the words of Mbeki bring us closer to the answer, yes, closer, yet not close enough. Freedom in its full bloom still eludes us, it is not quite part of our social imagining and our reality.

Yet I ask: how far do we dare to take this dream – the seemingly impossible dream of freedom – so that we have within our grasp the power to own our dreams and our future? In order to come up with an answer, maybe the question ought to be: How do we transform our realities so that they begin to resemble our dreams, rather than making realities of our dreams?

I believe it is in the realm of politics and the task of the politician to turn political dreams into political realities. But I also maintain that it is the task of the entrepreneur, in particular, and of business in general to transform the ground beneath us so that the realities themselves begin to take their own shapes, be re-formed, re-moulded into the things of dreams.

New ideas, new products and inventions are born when the entrepreneur sees these possibilities within reality and identifies the potential for change. To my mind, this is the beginning of economic freedom – the idea that reality is there waiting for the next moment, the next bright idea or invention that will change the quality of people’s lives and leapfrog them into a wholly new world.

In some ways, I would argue that the entrepreneur is the poet of the private sector, the one who is brave enough to take risks, to ignore the pessimists in his midst and with single-mindedness see the world in all its splendour. It is the entrepreneur who transforms and is able to enthuse hundreds, if not thousands or millions of people and persuade them that this is the way it should be, this is what is desirable, this is what we want and would want the world to be. This is what economic freedom means and can bring. Thus in South Africa it would be foolhardy to think that freedom comes from above or below or simply from political change. This is and has been only a beginning.

The politician and the entrepreneur will have to walk hand in hand for economic freedom to exist and they have to be alive to the reality around them of the people waiting for change, wanting something new. The people themselves may not recognise that the seeds of their dreams are already spread out before them and that what they must now do is to sow and reap this harvest by tapping into new ideas, identifying new needs and growing better businesses; creating solid foundations for a sustainable economic future.

Black economic empowerment has been important in creating opportunities for black business that did not exist in the previous apartheid dispensation and it will also be an essential factor in contributing to ending poverty in our country. We have to recognise that if we are to nurture new entrepreneurs for the future, we must instil confidence in all our people and encourage them to play their part by creating concrete plans and projects, so that the African markets and marketplaces of the future become vibrant economic spaces – truly free places for a free people.

Above everything else, we have to learn to think in ways we have not thought before. We need to pursue:
· not only freedom from want, but freedom to create a surplus that is greater than mere subsistence;
· freedom not only from deprivation but freedom to possess more than we desire;
· not only freedom from suppression and fear, but freedom to express ourselves; and;
· freedom to be fearless and to take on new tasks and labours with courage and conviction.

If we possess these freedoms to be, then the market will also be free, and economic freedom will of necessity be increased and expanded as the people’s freedom is strengthened. These are the ideas that move me to do what I do, and to achieve what I have achieved. These are the kinds of issues that preoccupy me and my partners and all those I do business with on a regular basis. These are also among the concerns of the market out there, of the people on whose purchasing power we depend.

Author: Herman Mashaba, CEO of Black Like Me (adapted from a speech he gave on receiving the 2004 Free Market Award). This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

FMF Feature Article\13 July 2004 - Policy Bulletin 21 July 2009
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