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Review of Are South Africans Free?


By Arthur Rose

Review of Are South Africans Free? by Lawrence Hamilton. Bloomsbury: London. Pp 168. ISBN 978-1-4725-3461-3. (Pb) £16.99.

The answer to the question posed in Lawrence Hamilton’s surprising and provocative title is no. South Africans are not free, and, to judge from the responses my South African colleagues gave to the book when I carried it around campus, this insight is neither surprising nor provocative, although it certainly is controversial. Here, controversy is to be commended, for the great strength of this study is Hamilton’s challenge to easy notions of freedom as they surface in contemporary South African politics. Freedom, Hamilton argues, is ‘a combination of my ability to determine what I will do and my power to do it or bring it about’ (p. 21), and it is in this sense that he provides concrete explanation for my colleagues’ intimations that South Africans are not free: if the 1996 Constitution enshrined the rights and duties that ensure South Africans enjoy the formal freedoms from impediments, to self-determination and of citizenship, these freedoms are not practicable in the post-Apartheid state. Hamilton sets up, in opposition to the formal freedoms so often invoked in praise of South Africa’s 20 years of democracy, a logic of freedom as power: the capacity and the ability to determine one’s own actions, one’s political representation, and one’s social and economic environment through ‘meaningful control over economic and political representatives’, and ‘develop and exercise these powers self-reflectively within and against existing norms, expectations and power relations’ (p. 3). By this logic of freedom, South Africans, whether rich or poor, cannot be said to be free for four main reasons: levels of poverty, inequality, unemployment and general quality of life are appalling; public education fails to provide literacy or readiness for work; economic and political representation is skewed towards elites and against the general populace; and political representation, as it stands in South Africa, undermines, rather than supports, meaningful power for citizens.

Here, two issues immediately arise, which Hamilton dismisses in short order. First, if one marks the distinction between elites and the poor, then it is simply some South Africans who are manifestly not free. Hamilton shows how, given the levels crime, jealousy, and fear, even elites are disempowered, through their need to shut themselves off from the broader community (in gated communities) and their anxieties about safety and security. Second, if freedom relies on a shared moral duty to protect the freedom of others, then the need to assert freedom as power is less necessary than, say, political representation that is less corrupt or liable to political cronyism. Hamilton does not reinforce the moral argument: rather, he shows how meaningful economic and political representation, combined with the awareness that individual freedoms depend on collective freedoms, will secure a structural freedom that is far more powerful than the appeal to moral duty that characterised the political concessions in the early post-Apartheid period. This structural freedom will obtain when two gaps have been successfully negotiated. The first gap – a gap which must be maintained – is often occluded or ignored by South Africa’s political representatives, when they refer to themselves as representing the will of the people, when these people often have no means to let their real needs and interests be heard. This lack of means creates a second gap – a gap which must be closed – between the actual people and their political representatives, whose response to these needs and interests is often bound up in the political expediency of negotiating existing elite interests.

I have only scraped the surface of Hamilton’s fascinating theory of freedom as power, and yet this is not the book’s main achievement. After all, its theoretical importance is only as a case study for Hamilton’s more philosophical companion volume, published by Cambridge University Press: Freedom is Power: Liberty through Political Representation (2014). While it has undeniable academic importance as a case example, Are South Africans Free? does stand as a separate work, since it shows how exactly South Africans aren’t free through a close reading of Statistic South Africa, Census 2011 and the Housing Survey against an impressive number of theoretical and empirical studies. In other words, Hamilton takes what we already knew, that South Africans aren’t free, and shows us why we thought we knew it, and why we actually should know it, and what, in conclusion, we can do about it. If the one stylistic weakness of the work is its distracting emphasis on enumeration, these lists do provoke us to think that perhaps there are certain steps we can take to change the answer to Hamilton’s difficult question.

Reviewed by: Arthur Rose, University of Leeds

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 76 (Winter 2014/15), pp. 103-105].

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