I have mixed feelings about Freedom Day. A sense of relief is mixed with a sense of frustration. Optimism is muddled with ineffable loss of something different, something a little better than what we have now. I think Nomboniso Gasa said it far better than I on Facebook yesterday:
Freedom, I think, is never complete. It is not a place of destination. You don’t arrive and embark of a station called freedom. You move, constantly, towards deeper states of being free. You cull out, constantly; the aspects that make you feel ‘unfree’ or limit your freedom. It is constant work, as anything that means anything in life.
When words fail me, I paint and then write words into the colour. “Though we mark our freedom with an X upon a ballot,” I wrote, “we do not need politicians to be free, for we are free unto ourselves and we owe no one.”
On Freedom Day, I picked up a friend from Park Station and drove through to Velo where my new exhibition is on display. Inspired by Nkandla, it is called Firepool. Almost all of the pieces are political, and under apartheid I might well have faced the unwelcome attentions of the police. My paintings have no presidential penises, so I am fine.
There we waited for Nchema, a friend I made through Twitter. He is a member of EFF. Months ago, I asked him for a beret. It was partly tongue in cheek, partly a way to say: I am white and privileged, a small business owner and a capitalist, but we are both South Africans, we both care about this country, and I don’t want to be your enemy.
In the meantime, another EFF organiser, the leader of their youth league, walked in. I showed him around the exhibition and explained that it was in lipstick, and that I was inspired by Nkandla. “We will buy some of these,” he said, as though it was obvious.
Nchema presented the beret to me in front of the Firepool paintings and I posed for a few tongue-in-cheek photos. It’s fashionable to demonise the EFF, but they are more than Julius and Floyd, and my interaction with them was perfectly cordial.
Wearing the EFF beret was not so much a statement of allegiance to an ideology as a willingness to reach out to people who have legitimate concerns. Though I disagree with many of its policy positions, I think the EFF is good for democracy and I want to see them in Parliament, where they will have to get down to the nuts and bolts of changing lives for the better.
So this was a way to say that we may disagree on many things, but that does not mean that we disagree on everything. It does not preclude our ability to connect. We can like each other, even if we don’t always like each other’s ideas, and we can still listen to each other with respect.
I wore the beret for the rest of the afternoon. Most people politely ignored me. One waitress congratulated me, while a security guard shook my hand. An old white man called me a clown, twice, and then stormed off.
(In South Africa, tolerance only applies to ideas that you agree with.)
In the end, I got a mixture of flak and praise over that beret, both online and in real life. For various reasons, it is probably too risky for me to wear it again, though I plan to write about its power and why I think it is a small piece of marketing genius. (Also, it looks pretty good when you wear it fashion-style.)
Freedom is always potential. It is in the exercising that freedom becomes meaningful, and, yesterday, I think that’s what I did.
You have your freedom. Go out and make it mean something.