Expat Reflections – What Does Freedom Feel Like?

Nelson Mandela is on his deathbed as I write this. Tomorrow he may be physically gone from this world. There has never been another icon so pertinently attributed to freedom.

Freedom means many things to many people. To Mandela it meant freeing people from the chains of Apartheid and allowing them to live their lives. Sadly, many have not been freed from the chains of poverty and violence that still bind them.

What Does Freedom Feel Like?

I have felt freedom in my own life, in my decision to travel around Europe, explore the world and more recently, to accept a job in the Netherlands. South Holland has presented an uncanny sense of freedom, one that I certainly am not used to as a South African.

I’m used to burglar bars, alarm systems, private security companies and being vigilant left, right and centre. Watching, expectedly for thieves, burglars, rapists and murderers is a life I am accustomed to. What a strange life to now feel so abnormal in such a normal country that is the Netherlands.

Yesterday I observed something that honestly made my jaw drop. A mother cycling with her young child sitting in what is called a bakfiets turned down my road. Many mothers cycle with a bakfiets here. Her child was fast asleep in an upright position in the wooden box on the front-end of the bicycle. She cycled without a care in the world towards her front door. And when she parked her bicycle, she didn’t even lock it, she simply picked up her child, kissed him on the cheek, put him gently on her shoulder and walked inside the house. This boggled my mind. I stood there watching as she lovingly lifted her sleeping child out of the box and motioned inside – such a natural, simple act would be threatened in many parts of South Africa.

In fact, had this been anywhere in South Africa, the bakfiets would be claimed within seconds, dismantled, spray-painted in a completely different colour and would quite frankly be unrecognizable. It would be ready for resale almost instantly. It may also be smelted down and repurposed, depending of course on the thief’s business motives.

A lump in my throat formed that afternoon. Am I truly free unlike many South Africans who struggle each and every day for survival? I considered tremendous amounts of guilt that had somewhat consumed me upon arrival in this country of poppies, bicycles, windmills and carefree living.

But what does freedom really mean. Now that I am here I sometimes think that I am no less free because I have to deal with the guilt of leaving and that in itself is painful.

Consider: is freedom the ability to walk down the road normally and not worry that you will be robbed or stuck with a knife? Does freedom mean you as a woman are able to walk around in your suburb without being accosted by men or even raped?

What does freedom mean now that Nelson Mandela is on his deathbed? He has sacrificed his life working towards freedom but the problem is overriding. The statistics tell the honest tale of freedom in the ‘New’ South Africa, one that leaves me with a lump in my throat but sadly, with a choice (somewhat half-heartedly) to be free.

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Elizabeth Joss

Elizabeth Joss is the founder and main writer at The Museum Times. She works as a university lecturer by day and is an avid travel blogger and arts and culture enthusiast by night. Elizabeth started The Museum Times out of the need to give smaller, lesser-known museums more exposure.

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5 Comments

  1. Elizabeth….what can I say? I’ve never even tried to deny or negate the truth that made you leave South Africa and I won’t try to, either….But…it’s really a hard one, it’s really an “issue”, isn’t it? I’ve been a few places around the world and the encounters with people who used to live in South Africa (I can’t call them “South Africans” if they don’t want to be so linked or if they do not see themselves as such) leave me searching….Your recent posts have prioritized your reasons for leaving even without anyone asking (and you don’t owe anyone any explanation, either), so all I can say is that in you I sense the same mixed-up emotions I perceived in many others I have encountered abroad. Sometimes slightly defensive, sometimes mournful–it sums much of it up, doesn’t it? To be a South African, for some, is to either leave the country or to be the one staying behind, saying goodbye to the friends who are leaving and wondering how many more friends will be so lost (it hurts both ways)…How so many others have left before you left….Like I said, there’s no argument against your grievances, they are cold hard facts…Yet, I go back to South Africa because unlike you and I, there are so many who will never have this opportunity to get out of that country, whose tribulations will never make the papers–the very things you hear affecting people that make you leave, sometimes the very things you actually witness–well, there are those who will never have the opportunity to register their grievances, there are those who were doomed to stay trapped even before they were born. I go back to keep doing whatever I can so that some of them might have the privileges you and I have enjoyed in seeing a world that is not South Africa. I go back so that people who genuinely, to my thinking, feel sincerely mixed up, can come back, too. I’d prefer, in an ideal life, to encounter “Saffas” who love the new countries they are in because of those countries themselves, not because those countries are “Not South Africa”. To be a South African remains a complex thing, a beast. You either leave or you lose your friends because they leave. And then both those who stay and those who leave have to ask themselves how much they think about the countless others who hardly get the chance to leave a five squared-kilometer perimeter where “survival” is a way of life that does not even get into the newspapers, onto media24, where the way of life is far lower than you or I could ever hope to imagine. It’s complex. I only post this comment because I have sensed that you have been more affected than you express openly, but it’s there, you are struggling with it even as you are rightly expressing your enthusiasm at being in a new place. Africans have a kind of Humanism that is far different from the Individualistic Humanism of the West. We are bound to the idea of Community. You might be out in another country building a life for yourself, but you miss the Community you were once part of. Maybe in my lifetime, in yours, we won’t see much change… But I’ll keep hoping that it turns out better for all of us. I want women and children in South Africa (don’t even get me started on the rest of the continent) to be as safe as women and children I see here in Europe. I want to see that more than I want to just hear about individual people happy and safe in a new environment, happy as I am for them. It won’t get better if people like me keep leaving. Something’s got to give. That’s the Freedom I want for all. Call it my Mandela-complex. I met the man and felt small when I shook his hand. I want others to know why he occupies a special place in world history, rather than his memory being a standard, routine ‘thing’ for political negotiation, tourism and whatever else. So hold thumbs, and keep holding thumbs, that we can still keep trying.

    • Hi Riaan, I really appreciate your long comment and didn’t expect it, so thanks very much. Yes, to be a South African is a very complex thing. The situation is not easy either way. It will always be my home and I will always return. Every day I pray that the situation will get better in our beautiful country.

  2. I am back in South Africa next week after being away for 2 years and reading both of your comments made me realise the complexity of being a South African.Yes I identify with the constant fear for your life and never having a single day when my heart did not drop with some scared feeling. Whilst living abroad and experiencing the freedom of not having to lock my ground level glass doors, often forgetting my keys in the front door overnight, knowing a culture where one’s belongings (not to even mention life) is respected. That is freedom and I wish all my fellow South Africans can experience this bliss. However, I am also a strong believer of community and there is no point to having this blissful freedom alone when those dearest to my heart, those that can see inside my soul, my fellow South Africans are not there to share it with me. So the questions is what to do…..I also want to go back, will go back in a year and like one of my heroes says : “be the change u wish to see in the world” and attempt and finding my peace with others cos sharing and caring and love is what its all about! But thanks for a truly thought provoking article Liz ,and Riaan for the passionate comment!!People like you provide paths in life!!

  3. Elizabeth,

    Wow! I am so impressed once again. I love your writing and outlook on life! I love it! Thanks for sharing.

    To show you how much I like your blog I have nominated you for the Most Inspirational Blog Award. You can find more about the award on evonlagrou.com/2013/06/29/inspirational-travelor

    I hope you enjoy this experience of nominating others as much as I did!.

    Good luck to you! Evon

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