Monday, November 7, 2011

Prisoners of freedom.


There’s something tragically and dangerously seductive in the latest “strugglers” war cry for “economic freedom”. Despite its magnetism, those who promote or slavishly follow it should understand its context and meaning to the same extent as someone has to understand the dangers of experimenting with heroin.

For one thing freedom itself is never an absolute state. We learn this very quickly when we progress from adolescence, that giddy time when we rebelled against all forms of authority, to adulthood when we discovered that freedom comes with the restraints of responsibility and accountability. 18th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau may not have been the first to write about the conditional nature of freedom, but he certainly expressed it the most memorably in his aphorism: “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”. These same chains, and many more, are being rediscovered by many South Africans after the euphoria of the first democratic elections.

And unwilling to accept that perhaps these chains are largely in the nature of a Social Contract or our own Constitution, they are now being defined as “economic chains”, to be removed even if it means tearing up the contract.

Economic disparities and poverty are a real problem – one that is compounded severely by perceptions that drive the debate and the absence of universally accepted scientific definitions. There is supreme irony in comparing the seemingly well fed and clothed jogging poverty protestors, to the destitute groups seeking solace in aid camps in Somalia. We seem to prefer wallowing in envy rather than gratitude. Justified or not, these comparisons are the carriers of the deadly virus of unrealistic expectations. In the increasing absence of the means to fulfil legitimate aspirations, comparisons and expectations have become a flaming torch that could set fire to the constitution, the burning of which will without question enslave us and the arsonists beyond our worst nightmare.

But what is very, very sad about the youth march for “economic freedom”, is the expressed understanding that it means “having what the rich have”, or more specifically, ownership of minerals and land. This statement alone reveals volumes about their perspectives. Freedom is seen to be synonymous with owning, rather than doing. Freedom is having designer clothes rather than an opportunity to do something meaningful with one’s life.

Informed by our own life time of experience and the lessons of our forefathers, we as the “retiring” generation are then tempted to shake the youth out of this outlook…one that we ourselves encouraged; that has led to pressure on resources, environmental destruction, wealth disparities, waste, impatience, market volatility and unsustainable consumption and acquisition – all for little, if any, increase in human contentment.

We should impress on them that seldom does one find freedom in wealth and possessions. For in the pursuit of them one either becomes a wage slave, or defined and controlled by what one owns. Many simply get trapped in the have-more-want-more hedonic treadmill.

They should know that the true value of a human being does not lie in what they own, but in their capacity to make a contribution to others; that if they define themselves by their possessions, they are indeed very shallow, and their legacy will go with them to the grave. True empowerment is a state of being, not a state of wallet.

They should be taught that a decent job is not about its pay and benefits, but rather that which gives a sense of meaning in being able to make a contribution to another. They should be reminded that Nelson Mandela found meaning in imprisonment simply by having a purpose greater than his own needs, and that a doyen of psychology, Viktor Frankl, wrote one of mankind’s greatest psychology texts out of his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp.

They should be inspired by the heroes of the past and present, in business, politics, and all fields in society who made invaluable contributions to mankind not because of any financial reward but because of their desire to make a difference, passion for their work, their knowledge and experience. Material rewards on their own have seldom driven the human spirit to do great things. They also seldom provide lasting peace and contentment.

It would be good for the marchers to know that they will never be the best they can be by focussing exclusively on what they can get out of a situation. Being prepared to go beyond what they know they can get, is the essence of risk, entrepreneurship and adding value to society and ultimately for themselves. It is far better to create a job than to look for one. If they toyi-toyi to Pretoria in the belief that they will get a hand-out of South Africa’s wealth, then they are stifling their own capacity to do something meaningful with their lives in service to others. They change the march from being majestic to shameful.

But I suspect I am being a bit unfair to some of those marchers. I suspect that some of them do not share the definition of “economic freedom” as being about hand outs from the rich to the poor. More likely, they were there to show their disenchantment at not being able to find meaningful work; at having their aspirations smothered by the circumstances of our time. To them, clichéd advice that economic freedom comes from hard work must sound awfully patronising.

While I salute and have empathy with those so frustrated, my only response to that is that the cause of death of aspirations is invariably suicide rather than murder. Aspirations, which are simply a willingness to do something meaningful with one’s life, to add value to others and being prepared to hold oneself accountable for one’s own destiny, can be nurtured to find expression in many forms.

Marches, protests, and other forms of dissent may break a chain or two, but the real prison is the one we construct for ourselves. The walls and the bars are made up of expectations, attachments, greed, envy and raw material self-interest. If freedom means being able to give expression to these, then we become prisoners of our own freedom.

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