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  • Dr Sechaba Maape

Why we need to decolonize the notion of Freedom

Updated: Sep 23, 2023

A speculative SA where freedom is decolonized - AI image by S.Maape

After so many years since the fall of apartheid in South Africa, many people wonder why it is that we’ve still not done away with social and economic problems. The majority of South Africans, especially those who are from African and coloured communities continue to suffer from poverty, unemployment, and general levels of hopelessness. Having been born in the black community in South Africa, and then going on to do my studies in architecture, I believe I have gained a unique insight into our situation. I think that the reason things remain the way that they are is because we are suffering from a spiritual, philosophical, and cultural crisis.

When colonialists arrived on the shores of South Africa during the 1600’s, they found people who they perceived as wild and uncivilised. This idea that indigenous people who had been living in SA for hundreds of thousands of years are uncivilised was cynical at best and was obviously fallacious. Africans who lived here all those many years ago lived according to the rhythms of the landscape. There is enough evidence in the archaeological record to prove that the people who lived here were anatomically modern humans, that they possessed a sense of an ordered universe, which requires them to have had a language and symbolic systems of communication expressed in culture. The literal language engraved on rocks and painted on walls is evidence that people lived in an intelligible cosmos governed by logics. I have argued that through rituals, people inhabited the landscape and the cosmos in such a way that they were in dialogue with the earth, in a harmonious flow (Maape;2020). These harmonies were always a balance between anomie and rootedness, change and stability, and knowing when either of these should be applied.

Colonisers did not recognise this as civilisation. For them, war, extraction, control and subjugation was to be civilised. They were looking to make money and set up a halfway stop that eventually led to the formation of a settler colony. In the process, they began oppressing the people they found here, and through numerous battles and conquests, eventually decimated many, both physically, but also culturally and spiritually. The latter is perhaps the most important. In my own people’s history for example, when missionaries came across my Setswana speaking community, archival records tell us that they told my people that applying sibilo is a sin, and those who apply it on their skin will burn in hell, and that wearing modern clothes is godlier. This is but one way in which people were destroyed, and there are many others. The consequence of this is that Africans ended up loosing much of the knowledge and culture that helped them form a sense of self in relation to the larger cosmos. The tools they had of what it means to be a person in the world became interrupted, and for some this meant that one was reduced into an object, eventually serving the endless desires of the capitalist colonial men who went on to control South Africa.

As we know, there did come a time where miraculously, some people rose out of the oppression, and demanded better for our people, they wanted to live free from the oppressive system of colonisation, and later the dominance of apartheid. People wanted to be liberated, and so many adopted liberation ideologies, especially those from the likes of Marx and Sartre. Freedom became the new religion for those who had woken up from the oppression, and so Sol Plaatje and others formed the ANC and fought hard against the oppressive systems. People learnt from Frantz Fanon that liberation, and the liberation movements were how the struggle against oppression can be won. Amongst my own people, my father and his comrades fought against the apartheid system and developed a deep connection to the liberation philosophies and values.

I was raised under such values, and was taught to question authority, to be bold and to fight for what I believe. I was taught to have a mind of my own, to be an individual, to liberate my thoughts and become authentically engaged in life. God was seen as an irrational and conservative entity that represented a right-wing small mindedness. And reason and logic, particularly in the form of education were the most important tools for accessing freedom and living in one’s own terms. Eventually the oppressive system crumbled, and South Africa went into a new reality in which Africans are in governance and are tasked with running a state. They were put literally in the seats of those who previously oppressed them and were now expected to create a new world. And this remains to be the project, and continues till today with many successes, but certainly with many failures.

When reflecting on this history, and the state of our country today, the large amounts of poverty and unemployment, the failing state infrastructure, the crime, and various social ills, it is easy to merely point a finger at those who are in government and blame them for not achieving what they promised. One can simply reduce it to corruption and greed, or even racist ideas that Africans cannot lead. When I look at the situation however, I think something deeper is happening. When we reflect on what occurred recently during the Covid-19 pandemic, the government enforced lockdowns and people’s movements were restricted as a way of mitigating the spread of the virus. Around the same time, South Africa experienced mass riots and looting, which equally saw the government having to call for a state of emergency and restricting certain freedoms.

In both these examples, people were restricted from the liberties and rights they had fought for so hard, doing this as a measure to deal with the crises they were facing. Of course, some may argue that both these crises were caused by the failures of government in the first place and may have been avoided. Today a not so new threat is upon us, namely climate change. This threat requires that humanity mitigates the ongoing increase of greenhouse gasses, CO2 levels so that we do not reach a tipping point, by which time our planets system will change to such an extent that new unpredictable outcomes will cause unimaginable disasters. If we have learnt anything from history, we can assume that if it comes to a situation where the threat becomes more immanent, to achieve the mitigatory levels of warming might require that people’s rights are restricted, like the way the Cape Town water crisis forced government to impose restrictions.

What I’m trying to say is that these scenarios demonstrate to us that at some level, people need to be mobilised collectively towards a common goal, hopefully one that benefits all. However, in a country that values a particular kind of freedom, it becomes challenging to enforce rules because those who are in power have adopted what they believe are liberalist values, such as individualism, self-determination, and freedom. These values were important as a tool by which liberation from an oppressive regime is achieved, but I don’t believe freedom as a value is consistent with the nature of our universe. Climate change is a real challenge to Western notions of liberalism and freedom because what climate change demonstrates is that we live in a world with pre-existing conditions. The document titled Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome is a key document that argues that the planet we live on has limited resources, and that we cannot simply extract indefinitely. Similarly, we know now that our ecosystems work precisely as systems, and that when seen as living systems beyond a reductionist lens, we understand that these systems must be maintained in a particular way, the forests, the oceans and deserts, all part of one planetary system.

This is not a world of absolute freedom but is instead one of what I call planetary freedom. We need to understand the way our planet works, and how it is part of the rhythms of our cosmos. Our freedom needs to be limited by the pre-existing limits of our planet, and our values need to align with planetary values. This is what the settler colonialists found people practicing when they arrived on the shores of South Africa over 400 years ago. In my research, looking closely at how people survived climate change in the past, it became evident that adaptation was a key factor in ensuring survival. Due to the way the human brain works, people employed mechanisms by which they could interrupt or even undermine passed conditioning, this was done through what we call rituals. These practices mobilised brain chemicals that would dissolve previous conditioning so that people would always inhabit the current present situation, instead of being trapped in a past that no longer has value for survival. Ritual was a moment of chaos, a liminal moment, but it was still a moment. People also knew that there were times to conserve, and times to change. Like the incubation process of carrying a child, the mother’s womb is a protective secure and stable environment, but when the time is right the womb becomes hostile and pushes the baby out. When planting a new crop, the farmer must nurture the crop, water it, protect it from pests and create a stable environment. During harvest time, the very same crop is now cut and is in a sense killed for the purpose of feeding the community. During these times people have festivals and celebrations, colourful moments that celebrate in essence the chaos of the harvest, and for a moment suspend the need for conserving.

Living in the rhythms: Sketch by S.Maape

When these values were destroyed, people were brought out of alignment, and began to descend into being a lost community eventually being reduced to units of labour. The rhythms were lost, and eventually some rose to fight for rights using western notions of freedom. I’m calling for a time where we transcend these ideas of freedom and instead begin to revisit a deeper planetary freedom, one that is subject to a universal authority that demands that we humble ourselves to the pre-existing conditions of this world. I am calling for a maturing of our society, where we understand that we need to have a balance between a spirit of liberation, and a spirit of conservation, and not see these as opposing forces but as necessary processes of life. South Africa has fallen prey to extended forms of Western liberalism, or blind conservatism, and has lost a deeper understanding of how both freedom and conservation are part of the rhythms, that there is a time to build, and a time to destroy. Right wing politicians create rhetoric that encourages conserving traditions, but at their worst they become parochial and develop tribalistic attitudes, whereas so called liberal rhetoric encourage idealistic forms of freedom, often descending into anarchistic, even prepubescent behaviour. Our society needs to decolonise itself from these Western ideas, and remember the rhythms, ultimately towards knowing when the time is to build, and when it is a time to change.

Luckily our ancestors engraved these values on rock, so some record remains. We in South Africa need to move beyond left/right politicking and adopt a wiser, richer conception of value, which I think is the true form of civilisation. A true modernity, and a true freedom, is that which is aligned with the rhythms. I believe that we are in a time where we need to build, whilst noting that much from the oppressive passed still needs to be destroyed. I don’t think that blind liberation, or blind conservation is useful, we need to understand when to employ what towards ultimately building an inclusive thriving yet stable and nurturing society.


Maape, S., 2020. The role of ritual in Southern African hunter-gatherer environmental adaptation: A cultural neurophenomenological approach. Hunter Gatherer Research, 6(3-4), pp.303-329.

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