(this piece first appeared in The Herald on 15 June 2016, under the “Title SA freedom being circumscribed)
My 1997 Toyota is currently propped up on bricks in my backyard. You see, I’m waiting for my small time mechanic “guy” to find a specific part that is being reconditioned by his small time parts supply “guy”. I have though still managed to get around town regardless of this challenge and regardless of this week’s province wide taxi protest. This, partly thanks to Uber and partly thanks to the luck that I do not rank in the number of the struggling poor compelled to live in the far flung periphery of our sprawling metro. So, as I have zipped around town as a passenger in the last few days I have had a little more time to follow what my “friends” are saying on Facebook. Much of my feed is clogged up with pictures of cats sleeping in laundry baskets or heart wrenching messages about how not sharing this picture of a goat means that I don’t care about people dying of cancer. There was, though, some interesting talk about what people think of the taxi protest. Most of the talk was about the fear of the protest getting violent or how unfair it was that students could not get to class to write their exams. Yes, I feel for the students. I feel for the mall bound housewives’ stuck in traffic jams. But, to be honest, I’m more interested in what this protest is really about; and as far as I can understand, it’s really is about the delay in the provincial government’s issuing of “operating licenses”. Because, you see, the state has decided that it is criminal for a hardworking person to make an honest living transporting people from A to B without their permission. Really!? Perhaps there is something that I am not getting here? But my real worry is that so many of us are completely content with the idea that the state somehow has the right to tell us what we can and cannot do and that we need their “permission” to do an honest day’s work. This state bullying is not just in the transport sector, it’s all over the economy!
I work as an Architect. In this industry the state has decided that they do not trust the judgment of those who chose to do business with me. I am therefor required to remain “licensed” by the state. For an Architect to work without a license is a criminal offence. I go to jail! I mean, can we not be trusted as ordinary citizens to choose for ourselves who to employ to give us a lift to work or to draw up plans for the extensions to our patio? Do we really need armies of faceless civil servants employed with our tax money in Pretoria or Bhisho to help us with this level of decision making? Perhaps the reason we tolerate this intrusion is because we have not paused to think about it?
In the late eighties many of my friends, like me, were caught up with the idea of “freedom” and of “power to the people”. It seems though that as time has passed that ideal has evolved rather to us being content with changing the complexion of the state rather that questioning whether it was ever necessary for the state to take away our individual freedoms in the first place. The Apartheid state was unapologetic in taking away freedoms in the pursuit of “Law and Order”. At that time, citizens felt it was absolutely OK that there would be laws stopping us from selling flowers on pavements, brewing Umqomboti in the backyard or playing guitar for loose coins at the bus stop. It was just understood that the state was in control and it was the job of each and every citizen to “stay out of trouble”. But somehow we have allowed that apartheid mindset to move with us 20 years and beyond into the “free” South Africa. The obsession with “statism” seems to be held equally by political parties to the left and the right. The political debate is generally only about what category of additional state control can be forced upon its citizens.
Since apartheid times, the excuse used for state bullying has moved from “Law and Order” and “Suppression of Communism” to our new regime’s talk of “Health and Safety” and “Transformation”. We need though to wake up the very real possibility that our freedoms are being taken away for no reason other than to allow huge monopolies to step in and take control of the country. Putting in place “licensing procedures” on top of layers and layers of compliance requirements makes it more and more difficult for any but larger and larger institutions and corporations to keep up. State capture is not a single event, not just the Guptas, not just one corrupt politician. It is a tendency that has come with us since before we agreed in 1994 that freedom is what each and every citizen deserves and is entitled to.
So I urge each and every one of us, from today on, to free our minds and to become openly and vocally disgusted whenever we encounter the smallest attempt on the part of the state to tell us that we are not free. As long as we are not harming anyone, it should not be any of their damn business!