Looking through the lens of freedom

  • FreedomVS_GwenMark
The South African Constitution is premised on the three foundational values of freedom, dignity and equality. Much of our discourse is centred on the latter values. We talk about the dangers of inequality and we worry about impairing the dignity of vulnerable people. However, we often forget about the value of freedom.

Using this value as a lens, we can examine various topics like religion, identity politics, and border control, among others.


Religious groups have a complex relationship with the state. Theocracies endorse one religion above all others and encourage citizens to adhere to the tenets of a favoured faith. On the other end of the spectrum, an authoritarian secular state would prohibit all displays of religious adherence in public institutions and, in extreme cases, ban private rites of worship.

A commitment to freedom would denounce both of these extremes. Liberal states often adopt a value-neutral approach to religious belief and refrain from championing the beliefs of one religion over another.

Citizens are free to practise their faiths without interference, provided that such customs do not interfere with the freedoms of others.

South Africa‘s courts have recently tackled the issue of religion in public education and have held that a public school cannot proclaim itself to be a school of one particular faith, but must instead cater for a diversity of religious beliefs as well as atheistic beliefs.

A public school may thus not read solely from the New Testament during assembly, but would need to accommodate readings from the Torah, the Qu’ran, and even from Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”.

Identity politics

Jews may share an instinctive aversion to group classification. Under Hitler’s regime, Jews were forcibly racially classified on the basis of blood laws regardless of their religious beliefs.

Ultimately, that classification was the first step in a project of differentiation, scapegoating and, finally, annihilation. The apartheid state was built on racial classification, a legacy which South Africans have struggled to escape.

Today, there is an emerging consensus that race and gender are social constructs. However, these constructs are treated inconsistently in public discussion.

On the one hand, there is a growing trend of people selecting their own gender identities and it is not uncommon for people to use unique pronouns that escape a binary classification of “he” and “she”.

There seems to be an increasing societal acceptance of individuals transitioning from one gender identity to another. However, people like Rachel Dolezal, who identify as transracial, are met with ire. Instead of respecting their decision to identify with a particular race, such individuals are persecuted and accused of cultural appropriation.

This apparent inconsistency could be resolved with reflection and debate, but when the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia published an article on the topic, the publication was vehemently attacked. Instead of having an open debate on the topic, the journal capitulated and unpublished the piece.

Closed borders

After Hitler’s rise to power, Jews went to great lengths to escape Germany and sought refuge in other countries. While some nations opened their borders and granted those in dire need refugee status, others callously turned ships away, condemning the passengers to certain death.

Today, many Syrian refugees find themselves in a similar situation and have, in contrast to the past, received the greatest assistance from Germany.

Other states have been reluctant to accept foreigners into their borders, citing a desire to protect the cultural integrity of their nation, preserve the security of their citizens and safeguard the wellbeing of their economy.

It is therefore necessary to weigh up a state’s freedom to decide who may enter its borders against an individual’s freedom of movement, while bearing in mind the ethical, economic and cultural implications.

Debates tend to split people into “for” and “against” camps. We hope to move beyond division and encourage nuanced discussions on these topics of perennial importance.

The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom has launched a podcast entitled “Freedom versus” - currently being aired on - using the value of freedom to examine these and other topics.

Mark Oppenheimer is a practising advocate at the Johannesburg Bar

Cecelia Kok is head of research and advocacy projects at the South African office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.


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