WHAT IS FREEDOM?
On Freedom Day here in South Africa, I couldn't help but wonder - what makes a person feel free? As I asked myself that question, I thought of some of the people I have met so far in Cape Town.
One morning in February I was driving up to the beautiful University of Cape Town on the school bus. The South African sun was burning hot and I was dying to get out of the crowded bus. As the bus drove up near the main university steps, we passed a monument with big, red spray painted letters. It said "FUCK ALL WHITES". Later that day, I received an email from school saying that several students had been arrested for vandalism. They had set a school bus on fire and burned paintings from the university. Days later, another email arrived. Students had been throwing human poo in the building I study in. The cleaning personnel had to wash off the poo before students came to the university in the morning. The reason for these incidents? The students were angry with how blacks are treated in South Africa today.
Twenty-two years ago, black people were allowed to vote for the first time in South Africa. On that same day, the 27th of April, the country celebrates Freedom Day. So what is freedom to the people who live in South Africa today?
Every day when I study at home, I buy my latte at a cafe down the corner. As I enter the door the staff greets me with big smiles. One of them is a journalist from Congo. For ten years she worked on the most incredible stories until her family begged her to escape. The final drop was a critical story she wrote on the Congolese government. Her co-workers “accidentally” died. Their houses burned down or they were hit by trucks on the road. One day when we had lunch together, she told me about her work as a journalist. “You cannot tell anyone what I wrote about. I'm afraid the stories can lead back to me". Her eyes lit up as she explained what she had been working on. It was the light of a passion that could have killed her. "I really want to be a journalist again. But it is too dangerous. It is impossible".
Her colleague has another wish for the future: "My dream is to open up my own garage and fix cars in Congo.
I´m saving up money by working in South Africa," he said, heating up the milk for my tea. "It´s my home country you know. Here, I feel like I am the foreigner taking other people´s jobs. I don´t always feel safe. In Congo I know the streets, I know where to go. And nobody sees me as a foreigner. There, I am home. My dream is to go back. Maybe next year?"
I take ubers everywhere. It works well here in South Africa, it brings me back safe after dark. Most of the uber drivers are from Zimbabwe. They usually chat away, and the other day my uber driver said he was from Burundi. “I cannot go back there. My whole family is killed, I have no one there anymore. But Cape Town is good. At least I earn money here.”
What is freedom? The freedom to vote, but not being able to go back to your home country? What is freedom for an uber driver, who lost his whole family in Burundi? They are not in prison. But are they really free?
A couple of weeks ago I went to Robben Island. I met a Sparks Milwana, who was imprisoned on Robben Island when he was only 17. For seven years he lived alongside other political prisoners like Nelson Mandela. His name was prisoner 5683. When a tourist asked "why did you want to work as a guide here after all that you went through?" Milwana held his hand on his chest and said "when I first came back it hurt so bad.. But it got better.. Now it is like therapy for me". Sparks Milwana faced his fears and is not in prison anymore.
So does that mean he is more free than the uber driver who fled Burundi, or the journalist who can get killed if she goes back to Congo?
Then there is "Mama", a Congolese woman who cleans my room and my clothes. I always hear her coming down the hallway as she drags one of her legs on the floor. She stops outside my door, puts the bucket down and knocks. Then she sighs. Another room to clean. I don’t always understand what “Mama” is saying in her French-Congolese accent, but it doesn’t matter. We smile, we laugh, and chat about simple daily stuff. "Mama" wants to get another work visa for South Africa. She hasn't been back to Congo for years. Once, "Mama" caught me throwing chicken bones in the garbage. She yelled "don´t throw food!!" and I gave her the bones. Every time I buy chicken now, I share it with "Mama". When I leave the student house to move in somewhere else this coming Saturday, "Mama" will still be here, sighing in front of each new room she has to clean. Will she get a new work visa? Will she ever see her home country again? What is freedom to "Mama"? Every once in a while I find her dreaming away in the kitchen, with her eyes closed with music in her ears. I wonder what she is dreaming about. I don't think it's chicken.
This is "Mama", a Congolese woman outside my old room, on the day I left for my new home. Every body in the house calls her "Mama" because she is always there taking care of the students. I will miss her!