Negotiating freedom, understanding responsibility
Having worked in the development sector for many years, I have gladly assumed an unapologetic stance on matters development. Arguably, the development agenda is particularly crucial for Africa and Africans, given the historical and social-economic journey the continent continues go through as she prepares to defend her rightful position at the 'table of civilisation'. It is hence that, for Africa, the freedom to express views and opinions in an environment where one must also be free to associate – to join forces with others, hopefully for the betterment of human development – must be a none-negotiable right, even as such freedoms must be exercised with the utmost objectivity.
Indeed, the freedom of expression is a crucial right, upon which other rights flourish. How, then, are these rights to be applied in our everyday interactions? In an attempt to answer this question, allow me first to share a recent in-flight experience - which will, hopefully, provide a window for an insightful look at our pursuit for fundamental human rights vis-à-vis the practical application of the same rights.
Flight SA185 left Jomo Kenyatta International airport at 16.00 on 1 October 2013 for OR Tambo International airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. I was aboard that plane, on my way to the third annual workshop of Suomi/Africa, a group of journalists and media professionals interested in highlighting African businesses and communities. On my left from the window seat where I sat was an elderly white couple who seemed to have kept the fire of their romance burning after what could easily have been more than forty years of marriage - unless, of course, they had just been recently married.
As I discreetly observed the lovebirds, my attention was soon drawn to the actions of the female South African flight attendant in her late 20s to early 30s, who was serving us in economy class with the first round of refreshments. As is the normal practice, she served the row in front which happened to be all white, always taking the order from the window seat and on towards the isle seat. At the “all black” adjacent seat on the same row, a similar order of serving was observed. As she moved her trolley to my row, I readied myself at the window seat to be served first only for her eyes to avoid mine, and first be cast on the white woman in the middle seat and then on to her partner on the isle seat before turning back and barking at me, “Yes, what would you like?”.
This action must have been odd even to my seat row mates, going by the apologetic glances they cast my way. I worked my anger down and politely, even using the word please, asked for a cold coke, now even unsure whether to add “with a tot of brandy”, for that had been my plan for a sun downer. Time came for early dinner, and she proceeded on to do the same to the continued consternation of my seat row mates, now even attracting the attention of the passengers across the isle. By the time she was coming round with her coffee/tea and duty free, I was so livid with anger that in order to prevent myself from exhibiting my signature “protest riot act”, I chose not to even bother look her way when she eventually had to turn to me, the black passenger that she was also required to serve. I had concluded, not unfairly as you are likely to agree, that the action of this black African female flight attendant must have been the side effects of Apartheid South Africa.
The apartheid era
I have reflected on this in-flight drama for a long time since my return to Kenya. My reflections have taken me through the historical journeys of major movements such as Kenya’s anti-colonial struggle for which December 12, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of success.
I have reflected on the long struggle against slavery and South Africa’s long-drawn anti-apartheid struggle and its system of education that intended to prepare a black African workforce in the art of servitude for the benefit of white masters. But these challenging times did not deter the activists in the more civilised human groups.
It would appear that freedom is an inherent human desire, which has in latter days become associated with human rights. And, in those hard times at the height of apartheid, anti-apartheid crusaders like Nelson Mandela - may God rest his soul in peace - persistently and courageously pursued the freedom to express, associate and assemble, even devising creative ways to exercise these rights such as using football matches as venues for expression.
It is no wonder that, upon the inauguration of Mandela as the first black South African president, among his first assignments was to rewrite the country’s constitution. And one can understand why freedom of expression and association had to be among the provisions to be safeguarded in the 1996 constitution.
For example, freedom of expression is contained in Chapter 2, Article 16 - and it states, among other things, that everyone has the right to freedom of expression; of the press and other media; to receive and impart information and ideas; of artistic creativity, and so on. This right, however, does not extend to hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion. The Constitution of Kenya (2010) borrows a lot of ideas from the South African constitution, even though some features are articulated more explicitly. For example, at Article 33 (2), it is indicated that the right to freedom of expression does not extend to advocacy of hatred that vilifies or discriminates others.
Educating citizens on rights and responsibilities
Pragmatism proposes that ideas, knowledge and concepts should be accompanied by suggestions on their practical application in our day-to-day lives. This implies the need for educating citizens not only on the meaning of these rights, but especially on their responsibilities in exercising them. Low literacy levels, therefore, might stand in the way - in Kenya and South Africa, at least - of reaping the full benefits of such freedoms. This is not to mention the need to deal with the subjective reasoning by those who might still be experiencing the residual effects of the negative impact of the long-drawn and cruel racially-divisive apartheid system of government to which leaders subjected South Africans until 1994.
Ms Yambo-Odotte is the Senior Media Advisor at Development Through Media in Nairobi, Kenya. She is also a member of the Suomi/Africa group of journalists. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org