Metaphor of Freedom
Last Saturday (19 September 2009) we had the privilege to visit Robben Island again; this island is today a much popular museum but was until the early 1990s a prison island; many people of the world know that Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and other political prisoners in the apartheid era were held there for many years.
There is a saying that most of these prisoners, notably Nelson Mandela, came out of there without bitterness. How is that possible? In order not to become bitter over all those “lost years”, I argue that a second freedom is necessary. Let met explain.
We had just walked through the building where the high treason prisoners were held and we had made comments on Mandela’s cell being so small. After that we came out into the open; it was the prison yard, the size of about one third of a soccer field. The field is enclosed by high, grey concrete walls, 6 – 8 metres high, and on top of that barbed wire. Standing somewhere in the middle you have the incredible blue sky above you, but any inclination to escape would be severely paralysed as soon as you cast a glance across the grey concrete: flat walls, high, nothing to hold on to.
So, just when I left the prison yard through a door into the street, I thought that this place is an excellent metaphor of freedom, or rather, getting out of this place, no matter how, must be a very powerful metaphor of freedom.
Just as true, however, is it that such physical freedom never could be enough, therefore the need for a metaphor. Every human being has to fight another freedom fight, the freedom from your own self. There is no doubt in my mind that the reason why the transition to the new democratic South Africa went as smoothly as it did, was largely due to the fact that the key leaders were people who also knew this second freedom.
The great thing about some of these leaders, and it would still be correct to say that Mandela is towering over others in this, is that they came to know themselves and learnt how to deal with themselves, while in prison. You here have to differentiate between freedom (internal power to exercise your options) and liberty (to make choices in your physical environment).
‘To get out of the prison yard’ is then the metaphor of freedom. This prison yard to a large extent is your own self; you have in fact built your own walls, you have long ago defined your own limits; your self interests hamper your wider view, there is in fact an eight metre high concrete wall that is your own making, so as not to see your neighbour and especially the stranger.
The problem that South Africa is facing right now (and it is easy to apply this state of affairs to the rest of the world, but here things easily become starker, as ‘writing on the wall’, as it were) is just this: we see only the first freedom, the physical escape out of the prison yard of apartheid. People are ill equipped to deal with the second freedom. Time is needed, also an honest soul searching; it is about getting out of one’s own home made prison yard in order to get to know the real self; it is a task that we all have to undertake, to achieve this freedom that ought to be the first freedom. This metaphor of the prison yard may help us to see that most of the time we are ourselves to blame for not being free.