Freedom Day, 2018; 24 years since the 1994 elections, the establishment of Mandela’s government, and the rise of a new dawn of equal rights in South Africa. Today, we do not celebrate freedom cheaply, but remember the cost to those who sought freedom while restricted, discriminated against, captive; who knew that in fighting they might die, but who lived believing that “the time is always right … to do that which is honest and just and good” even when society threatened otherwise.
“Let freedom ring out …” Martin Luther King Jr famously enthused in his “I have a dream” speech, 1963. The fight for freedom is as old as this world is, each generation building on the last, always seeking freedom, justice. And today we not only celebrate freedom in South Africa, equal rights after the long night of apartheid; 2018 calls for a worldwide celebration of those who sought and obtained freedom. This year marks 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, that great pastor and activist who spoke out against segregation in the so-called United States of America. It marks 100 years since the passing of the Representation of the People Act, 1918, in British Parliament giving some but not all women the right to vote for the first time.
The cost of freedom
Freedom takes on a deeper meaning when cost is involved. But it becomes priceless when a life is given for the cause. Martin Luther King Jr like so many in South Africa who laid down their lives for freedom, believed that “ultimately a man must do what is right no matter what people think about him.” He went on to preach that “man must do, if he is a leader, the will of Almighty God … come what may” — a powerful commitment which no man gives if he has not reached the point where dying for his conviction is better than living without it.
We see in King’s life a radical pursuit of integration and equality that will be respected for generations. And yet his fight for freedom without violence is an example to those today who feel that justice has not come in all its fullness to South Africa. In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr admitted:
“I’m concerned about a better world. I’m concerned about justice; I’m concerned about brotherhood; I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.”
Instead, Martin Luther King Jr advocated for a society and leadership that realised the need for action and governance that united both power and love; for he believed “that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anaemic. Power at its best … is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
Firm though he was in his resolve to protest the evils of the day non-violently, his passion for the cause of equality cannot be denied. He refused to be satisfied with the injustices of his time; he called the nation to make freedom a matter of urgency, “to make real the promises of democracy”. As a nation today, we celebrate the freedom already set out in our constitution but we mourn the poverty, poor education, overburdened and under resourced health care system, and the racial hatred that still plagues our land. Yet, within each area, we witness time and again the fierce courage of those who seek to bring freedom in their realm of influence; light breaking through the darkness. In our thirst to see freedom come truly in our nation let us be careful not to satisfy ourselves “by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred” as Martin Luther King Jr warned. For to do so may usher in freedom to an extent, but the captivity of soul that comes from action driven by hatred steals the full joy that freedom gained rightly brings.
Achieving human freedom without violence
Milicent Fawcett, leader of The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) who saw the passing of the bill that enabled British women over 30 to vote for parliamentary candidates for the first time in 1918, said, “I am far from claiming that we actually accomplished the difficult feat of doing what was right, but I believe we tried to.” In the face of pressure from women within the NUWSS who left and suffragettes elsewhere who did not feel violence was uncalled for in their fight for freedom, Fawcett stood firm in her beliefs that “the great advance in human freedom, at which [they] aimed” could be achieved without violence. Yet, as in the case of Martin Luther King Jr, her passion for the cause of women’s enfranchisement cannot be ignored. She embodied “the successful conduct of every great change” written in her book Women’s Suffrage published in 1911: the “combination of the spirit of order with the spirit of audacity.” For freedom to come, injustice must be recognised, and injustice recognised must meet with courage before it can be resisted well. In the face of disappointment, opposition, and misrepresentation, those fighting for the enfranchisement of women showed great determination. Fawcett wrote of their great trials: “the long struggle to obtain suffrage has been a great education for women, not only politically, but also in courage, perseverance, endurance and comradeship with each other.” The fight for freedom will always require more than a knowledge of injustice; at its core is a strength of character to see to the end the desire for change.
South Africa, your fight for equal rights, your fight for a voice, for the right to vote, is still fresh. Though white women received enfranchisement in 1930, it was alongside the denial of the vote to black men in the Cape. 1994, just over 20 years ago, was the first time South Africans of all races were given the right to vote. The cost was great; and today we celebrate that “long walk to freedom”. Nelson Mandela famously addressed the court in his 1964 trial, saying:
“I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Twenty seven years of imprisonment followed; 30 years until the realisation of his dream. How fitting that the man who suffered so much for the cause was the man championed by the people to lead the nation out of its dark night of political inequality and racialism. His great exposure to the hatred of man during the struggle led him to conclude something powerful: “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”
His dream of a rainbow nation is still one for which we strive; unity a beauty we long to see come into maturity. For where there is unity, there is power. Our history as a nation bears witness to what is possible when people unite for justice. As Nelson Mandela said in his inauguration speech, May 1994, “The struggle for democracy has never been a matter pursued by one race, class, religious community or gender among South Africans. In honouring those who fought to see this day arrive, we honour the best sons and daughters of all our people. We can count amongst them Africans, Coloureds, Whites, Indians, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jews — all of them united by a common vision of a better life for the people of this country.”
For those generations who sought the freedom we enjoy, we honour you. For the generation seeking freedom where there is suffering and oppression now, we stand beside you. Rise with courage and in the words of the famous martyr: “Let freedom ring out!”