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The recurring historical struggle for freedom

Several things that I experienced recently contributed to a renewed reflection, on my part, on the meaning of freedom. Much has been written about it, and I, like everyone interested in the topic, have my favourite authors in this regard. Here, however, I want to take these experiences as my point of departure.

The first experience was a talk given by a primatologist at the mountain club where we are members. He elaborated on the different kinds of primates, what their origins were and how to recognise whether a particular individual belongs to groups such as apes, monkeys, or prosimians (the large variety of lemurs that live on Madagascar). This was immensely interesting — did you know, for instance, that prosimians are matriarchal, or that the monkey species of South America have prehensile tails, which evolved when South America was still largely under water and the arboreal monkeys had to be able to hold on to tree branches with everything they had, and be able to carry their young with their strong tails?

The interesting facts about primates were not what struck me most in this knowledgeable guy’s talk, however. What struck a nerve on my part was his observation, that of the approximately 250 species of primates, about four species per year are going extinct at present, because of certain human economic activities. First, there is a flourishing illegal trade in exotic primates, especially the “miniature” species, because they are sought-after as pets (despite the fact that they do not make good pets), and often the mother is shot high up in trees to get her to fall, holding her young, which (if it survives the fall) is sold at an exorbitant price as a pet.

Secondly, primates’ habitat (mainly rainforests) is being destroyed at a seemingly unstoppable rate of 80 000 acres per day (it is estimated that 80% of the natural rainforests of the world have been destroyed to make way for agriculture and cattle farming). Madagascar is a case in point — thousands of acres of ecologically essential rainforest have been cut down to plant sisal, which — irony of ironies! — is used to manufacture a variety of “eco-friendly” items such as bags. In the process primates’ natural habitat is shrinking rapidly, and they have nowhere else to go.

My second thought-provoking experience was listening to a memorial lecture on the life and work of the late Dr Beyers Naudé, given by Professor Barney Pityana at NMMU yesterday. Professor Pityana spoke eloquently on the courageous role played by “Oom Bey”, as he was known, in the anti-apartheid struggle, by insisting that apartheid was not compatible with the theological and ethical foundations of the Dutch Reformed Church (in which Dr Naudé was a minister) — something that led to him being “de-frocked” by the church and ostracised by the Afrikaner community.

What struck me here was the historical resonances of Dr Naudés “revolt” (a concept perspicaciously employed by Corné du Plessis, one of the students who entered into dialogue with Pityana) with other, similar “revolts” on the part of individuals against autocratic, repressive regimes. These include Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian, who revolted against the Nazis and was murdered by them, Ché Guevara who was killed in Bolivia in the course of his efforts to initiate a liberation struggle there, and Spartacus, the gladiator who revolted against the might of Rome to free slaves from their inhuman yoke, to mention only a few. Add to these Mahatma Gandhi, Bram Fischer, Steve Biko and many others, closer to home. What they all had in common was rebelling against an oppressor that was easy to identify, albeit not that easy to overcome.

This theme of revolt against an oppressive regime confronted me yet again, last night, when my partner and I watched the recent musical version of Les Misérables, based on Victor Hugo’s immortal narrative, set in early 19th-century France. Apart from being beautifully done in cinematographic terms (and surprising one with the unlikely, impressive singing of Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe of Gladiator-fame), it impresses on one the historical irony that, no matter how often people overcome the burden of tyrannical rule, the latter will assert itself again and again.

The republican, anti-monarchist June rebellion of 1832 in Paris, which features in Hugo’s novel and in the recent musical, is a case in point. The French had hardly succeeded in ridding themselves of monarchical oppression in 1789 (followed by the reign of terror and eventually Napoleon’s imperial quest), when the monarchy was re-instated. In July 1830, and again in June 1832, republicans attempted, unsuccessfully, to overthrow the monarchy of Louis-Philippe. Here, too, the source of oppression was easily identifiable.

Notably, however, economic hardships of ordinary people contributed to these insurrections, and Victor Hugo acknowledged that poverty, particularly the plight of women and children, was a strong motivation for writing this powerful novel of suffering and redemption. Hence, one cannot ignore the present economic conditions across the globe, when one is witnessing, once again, what amounts to the increasing economic oppression of ordinary people — this time not by a monarchy, but by a global financial system that serves today’s elites, the equivalent of the autocratic monarchies of yesteryear.

The consequences of the financial crisis of 2008 are still felt in different degrees everywhere. In its immediate aftermath in the US, where taxpayers’ funds were mis-used to bail out banks and bankers, millions of ordinary Americans lost their homes, emphasising the difference in treatment of the elites and the middle-classes, whose homes were repossessed without hesitation by the very banks that were bailed out. The many protests all over the world since that time may be seen as manifestation of the irrepressible spirit of revolt. Hence, while the source of oppression today is virtually invisible by itself, and not as conspicuous as in the case of apartheid, or of an autocratic monarchy, it should not be hard to perceive its oppressive effects.

One may ask what my elaboration on the plight of our biological cousins (primates) has to do with poverty and revolt. Just this: these intelligent creatures, who share more than 98% of their genetic material with humans, cannot “revolt” against an inhuman economic system that blindly demands the continued, unjustifiable destruction of their habitat and the virtual slave trade of their species on (largely illegal, but lucrative) world markets. If humans do not protest on their behalf (and on behalf of other creatures facing a similar plight because of the “market value” of their bodies, such as rhinos, tigers and lions) no one will. Here, too, freedom is at stake — the freedom to live their lives in accordance with their own, unique, nature.

A theologian and colleague of mine, Professor Piet Naudé, recently wrote a striking piece on what is the source of power today, namely the “market”, in which he persuasively compared it to the traditional notion of “God”, to demonstrate that the “market” displays all the characteristics customarily attributed to God. These include “creating” things or conditions, “knowing”, or “registering” prevailing economic conditions, and even meting out “punishments” when deemed necessary — think of the way that the new deity is “punishing” South Africa at present via the excessive devaluation of our currency, for instance.

Hence, whether one thinks of human society, or of animals, everywhere the current form of oppression (or punishment), which has its source in the deified market, is evident. Fortunately — and history testifies unambiguously to this — the human spirit is irrepressible. As Albert Camus observed, everyone has a limit, beyond which she or he will no longer acquiesce in their own oppression.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.