Locked down on Freedom Day, but still free to dream and create
By Rosemary Mangope
It feels strange to be spending Freedom Day confined to our homes – forced back into chains by a virus that does not know or care about the anniversary of our democracy.
To all intents and purposes, this Freedom Day we South Africans are not free in the physical sense. Yet I believe we still have a lot to celebrate.
For one, we can celebrate the liberation of our minds – that, even during the lockdown, there are no shackles placed on what we are allowed to think and express.
We celebrate the fact that we voted on this day to bring to life a Constitution and Bill of Rights that have been lauded around the world. Among these rights is the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of artistic creativity.
Over the years since the promulgation of these rights, South Africa’s artistic community – always unashamedly vocal and uncowed, even when repressed – has embraced this freedom with gusto.
While under the previous regime many artists rebelled against thought control and produced outstanding work as a result, the democratic dispensation has also had no shortage of provocative, exciting work that prods at establishment thinking and challenges the status quo and its attendant inequalities.
Much of this creative output – in fields such as dance, theatre, art, design, fashion, literature and film – has been fêted around the world for its
toppling of sacred cows and its fresh, tart take on the shortcomings of our young democracy.
This stubborn refusal to be content with the new social, economic and political order, I firmly believe, has served to strengthen and reinforce our democracy. Some of us may not always agree with how artists interpret burning issues – the iconoclastic and controversial art of Brett Murray, Ayanda Mabulu and the Bitterkomix crew comes to mind – but we vigorously defend their right to do so. Our artists truly enhance and enrich our public sphere, and expand our marketplace of ideas – the agora of ancient Greek times.
Like the media, our artists and creators are the watchdogs of our society and the lens through which we make sense of it. In these strange and incomprehensible times we are living through, we need them now more than ever.
Luckily, whenever their rights to free speech and artistic expression are challenged, they have recourse to the vigorous systems and institutions we have put in place to defend those rights.
It is true that freedom is relative. As Anne Frank and stories such as Roots and The Color Purple have shown us, you can be physically caged but mentally free. The virus can’t take away our ability to think, dream, envision, create – even if the ultimate realisation of this freedom will have to wait. This may not seem much comfort, especially in these dark times when so many thousands of our artists are unable to earn a living, but it’s at least something to cling to.
At this time when our galleries, theatres, museums, bookstores and public spaces remain shuttered out of necessity, Virginia Woolf’s telling words come to mind: “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
● Rosemary Mangope is the CEO of the National Arts Council (NAC).