(Written 1 June 2012)

Dear All,

To pass laws to announce what freedoms there should be is one thing. To discover what it means to be free is something quite different.”  Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity, Harper Perennial, 1996, p. 191.

The appearance of the now defaced painting, The Spear by Brett Murray, has by and large left South Africans either titillated or convulsed – depending on one’s allegiance. Of the Nation’s polarised reaction there does not seem to be much new to be learned of those who nod and wag, “Quite right, the president is a dick in more ways than one”; but there is a great deal to be learned about the state of freedom of those who have declared themselves to be grossly insulted and demeaned. Especially what is to be learnt from the response of those who tearfully recalled the pain of being a victim of the institutionalised racism of Apartheid.

On the 5th March 2006 I was very pleased to get a letter published in the Sunday Times under the title ‘Lessons from Abroad’.  http://www.timeslive.co.za/sundaytimes/2006/03/05/lessons-from-abroad . The letter was a response to one Vuyo Mvoko who had written about how a white person who had returned to SA from abroad had left him with a sense of inferiority… the white person still acted like a ‘baas’. Part of my glib advice was that someone could only be a ‘baas’ if the person holding that view saw themselves as a ‘servant’. My pie-in-the-sky solution went something like, ‘sure you were treated as an inferior in the past, but all that is behind us now. So stop thinking of white people as “baas”. You are Free at Last! Go out and compete as an equal.’

A poster advertising a Free at Last film festival

Of course, it was useless advice. I have since realised that people do not have some internal switch that can be flicked from inferior to equal to superior at will. There is reason to believe that at some early stage of our adult lives – perhaps around 18 to 23 years of age – we develop an idiosyncratic image of our ‘self’ that appears to stay with us for the rest of our lives. As we mature we are able to put an internal spin on that image, to give it all sorts of masks; but in our quietest moments, we always seem to return to that original ‘self’. As my father used to say, “You take yourself everywhere.”

Zeldin makes the point that actors play a significant role in our striving for personal freedom because in some sense, everyone is an actor. “Professional actors are most admired where freedom is most highly valued, because acting is an instrument of freedom. (Acting) enables people to realise that they are not imprisoned in themselves, but can understand others and be understood by them” (p. 187). I should like to expand on this idea by suggesting that any engagement in a creative activity is an Instrument of Freedom. For example, as I write this I am in some way releasing the fears of that little man trapped deep inside of me, I am striving to express a personal freedom and in reading this you may get a sense of that freedom; further, in trying to make my point I am perhaps seeing the point of those of whom I write.

Is this the pattern of the march of personal freedom in South Africa?

While I am not a painter – and I do not know Brett Murray from a bar of soap – I am pretty sure that in his painting of The Spear he was searching for a personal freedom, a personal freedom for himself as well as for others. This is what societies’ artists do. They reach out as actors on our behalf so that through them we may experience some of that personal freedom. But this process is not without difficulty. Zeldin again, “People who try to think for themselves know that the cobwebs they spin are fragile and incomplete; but those who are content to be disciples, and become entangled in the cobwebs of others, forget that fragility and imagine they have landed on firm, stable ground (p. 195)”. Society carries a self-preserving inertia that challenges personal freedom and in healthy societies there is a civilising balance between the expresssions of the personal and of the group. But in unhealthy, unbalanced societies – where that civilising space is not given – there is a march to anarchy or oppression. And a mark of oppressive societies is the defacing of artistic expression. In oppressive societies we hear the monotonous, mindless, chanting of slogans, by mobs, as they make their way to protest against their own liberty.


The reaction of South Africa’s political leaders and the general public to The Spear is disturbing in that it tells us that even though the Nation has been free from the oppression of institutionalised racism for almost 20 years, as a society, South Africans are as trapped as ever. Trapped in racism, bigotry, hack ideologies, and every blight that leaves us tearfully shackled to the servile state of self-styled ‘servant and baas’. It will take men and women of considerably greater ability than those presently in charge of this country to lead it to a better life for all.



PS: “Baas” is an Afrikaans word meaning “master”.