Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Freedom to be our own worst enemies

It’s Freedom Day. Nineteen years ago today, I was in Hoedspruit, listening to reports of the queues on the radio and reflecting on stories about the AWB telling farmers about MK flying into the airforce base, warning them to hide in the shower with their guns.

If South Africa were a person, it would be in second year varsity (if it was lucky and went to a decent school), scraping by and partying. Its parents would be worried about it smoking too much weed and hoping it was using condoms. There would be fears it would drop out and move back home. There would be lectures on how it had all this freedom, and it was abusing it.

Freedom Day

But I’m not going to reflect on what South Africa has done with its freedom, though we have made more progress than we like to think. (Read here for a useful correction on the standard ‘oh God we’re circling the plughole narrative’.)

I’d like instead to reflect on freedom, and what I have done with mine. Because I am free in many ways.

I don’t own a house, or a car.
I don’t have any debt.
I don’t have a job, or a boss.
I have clients and obligations, but if I want to take off three weeks, I don’t have to apply for leave.
If I want to sleep late, I can, if there isn’t a meeting.
Until the end of March, I had the freedom to get on a plane, fly to Australia, and live there. (The moment I went through passport control at Sydney, I lost it, but that’s another story.)

There is a price to pay, of course. When I went to Standard Bank to convert my savings account to a cheque account — something I should have done years ago — it turned out that they still had my details from 10 years ago. My address, both physical and postal, my phone number, my marital status and title (Mrs). My employer, my job title and my salary.

Ten years ago I earned more than I do now.

That wouldn’t be so depressing if I’d switched careers from, say, accounting to working for an NGO, but I still do pretty much the same thing, communication strategy. It turns out that in my line of work, earning as much as I could working full time, for a salary, is virtually impossible. I work longer hours, but a lot of that is pitching for projects which end up not happening, or personal stuff that doesn’t bring any revenue, or NGO work.

So here I am again, in a rut. A better rut, for sure; there’s no way I’d ever go back into a full time salaried job (I’m temperamentally unsuited to hierarchies and timesheets). But a rut nonetheless, the kind where you do your best to keep busy because it’s the only way to keep reality at bay.

My Facebook friends launch new novels; I live-tweet conferences. The irony is that I have enough savings to quit my various day jobs to write full time, but I don’t believe enough in myself to take the chance. Deadlines and client briefs at least provide some sort of scaffolding around which to construct meaning. Conferences must be live-tweeted; there is an immediate need for that, a message that must be communicated. Art transcends time if it’s good enough, but nobody needs it in quite the same way. Or, more importantly, pays for it. So the conferences and the PowerPoint slides win, and another year slips by with little to show for it.

Oh, I go great guns when I’m in the bush and there are no distractions, but the moment I get back to Johannesburg I slip back into bad habits. Lose faith in the project, let it slide.
So, I still haven’t written any of the books I want to write.
Still haven’t had the courage to try standup comedy. (Too terrified of yet more failure.)
Still haven’t done anything truly meaningful, or anything that really matters.

I have a mentor, a CEO who gives me a hard time about how I don’t deliver. We’re due to have another lunch again. “Groundhog day,” he says he’s going to call it when he gets his PA to send out a meeting request, because we’re going to have the same discussion about the same things, because I haven’t done anything I said I’d do, surprise surprise.

Freedom to be our own worst enemies. That’s the awful contradiction that is life.

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