Various political theorists have noted that freedom comes in two forms. There is freedom from, and freedom to.
Freedom from usually comes before freedom to, though the second is implied in the first. The growth of political freedom across the world has meant, chiefly, freedom from oppression and discrimination, and the achievement of South Africa’s liberation in 1994 was seen as the climax of a long battle that had raged around the world for centuries and specifically on the African continent since the first resistance to colonialism grew into national liberation movements. Freedom from colonial oppression, here in Africa in the 20th century, generated “freedom to” — the nation’s freedom to govern itself, to make its own laws and to choose its own leaders.
That is the vision of freedom, at any rate, as given by the liberal constitutional model; it is the form of freedom entrenched in South Africa’s Constitution, which is built on the concept of universal human rights. Our freedom as citizens is constituted in the honouring of those rights, by the state in its interactions with the people and by members of the populace in their dealings with each other.
Twenty-three years after we first hailed democracy, a significant number of those who grow misty-eyed about 1994 get rather grumpy about voting today. That is probably because what happened in 1994 was huge, but it wasn’t enough. It achieved a great deal of freedom from, and that was a wonderful thing, but it hasn’t generated nearly enough freedom to.
Democracy has to grow and change. Democracy must be deepened. We have to keep looking at it afresh and ask whether it can be improved: Is it meeting our needs? A strong proportional representation system might not be optimal; there may be more expansive forms of popular participation than the state staging a few public hearings now and then. If, in the end, democracy is the most feasible model we can find for our freedom, we should be asking such questions.
At the same time, we should also remember: real freedom is not given but taken.
Editorial: Mail and Guardian South Africa