The responsibility of freedom Stellenbosch Business School Skip to main content
Prof Mias de Klerk
Prof Mias de Klerk, Director of the Centre for Responsible Leadership Studies, explores the true meaning of ‘freedom’ in our democracy.

This year we celebrate 30 years of democracy, the freedom for all citizens as equals and the end of a despotic government in which only some were free.

However, through the years it appears that there is not always a clear understanding of what the term ‘freedom’ means and what it entails. The term freedom has two different meanings: 1) freedom from ‘something, and 2) freedom to decide one’s own destiny. 

‘Freedom from’ something refers to aspects such as freedom from oppression and freedom from a despotic government. In South Africa, obtaining this freedom required many years of struggle, costing the personal freedom and lives of many, this ‘freedom from’ was constitutionally achieved in April 1994. However, with the lack of evidence of taking action against corruption and the remnants of state capture, one can question whether South Africa is truly free from a despotic government.

‘Freedom to decide one’s own destiny’ is about self-determination; the liberty to live your life the way you choose to and to take your own decisions of what to do or not to do. However, too often we see the misconception that this connotation of freedom is assumed to mean one can do whatever one wants to do; including being selfish, unethical and corrupt, exploiting those who have no power, etc.

This is an immature perspective of the meaning of freedom. Freedom is not infinite; self-determination does not mean freedom of action with disregard for its consequences. If freedom is expressed indiscriminately, it ultimately lapses into anarchy. Unconfined freedom can be as devastating and disruptive as legalised oppression.

Underlying both meanings of freedom is the concept of responsibility, the shadow side of freedom that is too often repressed or ignored. With a history of oppression in South Africa, there is often a delusion that anything done in the name of freedom is sacrosanct – above and beyond criticism. However, there can never be the freedom to do whatever one wants, notwithstanding immoral foundations and implications. Freedom without responsibility creates a culture of hedonistic, short-term gratification, promoting arrogance and hubris, widespread corruption and abuse of power for personal benefits, at the cost of the larger society.

Unless we exercise responsibility while we enjoy all the privileges of our constitutional freedom, it leads to chaos. Exercising any privilege or right without consideration of our responsibilities is likely to infringe on other people’s rights or be destructive. We see too often intellectualisations of whether a behaviour or act was strictly legal or illegal, and whether someone was found guilty by a court of law or not.

Not every act that is wrong can be governed through legislation, and not every unjust act which is not explicitly prohibited by legislation can be regarded as legal. This would have required legislation to be so voluminous that nobody would be able to know of it and therefore would not be able to apply it. Moreover, the world is so complex that it is impossible to govern all unacceptable actions through legislation. That is why we have values and ethics – moral norms and standards to provide guidance of what is good and right and what is acceptable to do or not acceptable to do.

Freedom should always be exercised within the framework of moral norms, whether they are explicit or implicit. Exercising one’s freedom should always enacted in ways that adhere to doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not ways that are technically legal, yet morally questionable. Indeed, exercising freedom with responsibility means doing less than what you are allowed to do, and doing more than what you are obligated to do.

The freedom to make our own decisions carries the liability to do so responsibly and keep the greater good in mind. Many of these responsibilities have been noted in the 2008 Bill of Responsibilities - an insightful, thoughtful and practical document that outlines the responsibilities that correspond with each of the rights found in the Bill of Rights, in Chapter 2 of the South African Constitution.

Yet, somehow the Bill of Responsibilities disappeared into obscurity to the extent that it is largely forgotten. One rarely hears about it or talks about it and celebrates freedom without any reference to the Bill of Responsibilities. Indeed, I cannot remember one instance where our political leaders referred to the Bill of Responsibilities. or any of the responsibilities that accompany human rights.

Celebrating freedom is an empty, one-dimensional and superficial exercise without combining it with reminding ourselves of the accompanying responsibilities. Being free from oppression and having free choice is a wonderful gift; but it is a delicate and fragile gift that we must cherish, nurture and safeguard for generations to come. If we don’t preserve it with responsibility, it will inconveniently drop on the floor of corrupt and despotic anarchy, shattering into thousands of pieces, never to be repaired again.

With freedom comes the duty to act with responsibility appropriately and the liability to be held accountable for what we do.  We have freedom now, freedom to choose to do the right thing, freedom to listen to our conscience, freedom to act ethically and responsibly. But we do not have the freedom not to act with responsibility.

As citizens, we will soon go to the polling stations to vote for who should govern our country. Each of us have the freedom to choose who to vote for, but we also have the obligation to vote with responsibility.

Cast your vote for those candidates and political party who demonstrate that they treasure responsibility and accept the liability to do the right thing for the greater good of all, those who are willing to be kept accountable for what they do. The time has come to celebrate freedom with responsibility in order to build a better South Africa.

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