Jeremy Burnham – The best way to promote individual freedom in South Africa


This is the essay and motivation contributed by Jeremy Burnham as his entry in the recent Freedomfest competition sponsored by Bob Glenister.

First we need to establish that individual freedom is desirable.  InSouth Africathis comes up against two linked propensities – ubuntu and jealousy.  Ubuntu with its romantic and historical appeal is easy to justify although seldom now used except as a stick to beat capitalists.  Jealousy is a relic of an oppressive past, where people who have not yet woken to the real possibility of personal freedom resent those who have.  Jealousy challenges my self-worth.

The only way fundamentally to overcome these hurdles and provide the space for individual freedom to discover itself is by building self-esteem, on two convictions:  (i) that every individual has uniquely valuable creative potential, and (ii) that there are enough resources out there to support everyone’s success.  Together these mean that your win does not imply my loss.

In a society where the personal worth of the majority was systematically devalued, the only safe expression for any residual sense of worth was through ubuntu.  Bring back self esteem, and instead of being a hiding place for failure ubuntu can become a vehicle for celebrating the dreams of equals.  And as I reconnect with my person­al potential, jealousy becomes an outmoded defence except in the sense of a cry for help.  Cries for help are human and can be respected.

So how to re-establish our conviction that we all have value, and that there would be enough to go around if everyone did rise to claim their share?

I suggest a two-pronged approach, focusing on the one hand on individual self-esteem and on the other on an economic model that can convince people that success for all is attainable and can be sustainable.

Self-esteem can be learned.  Its teaching will be associated with compass­ion and service, and differentiate it from arrogance.  Given our current deplorable educat­ional system possibly the best medium for teaching would be sport, and particularly the martial arts.  Good sports and martial arts training builds self-esteem in a res­pectful and conscious way.  Aikido, particularly, teaches respect for the opponent.  I would like to see significant media and corpor­ate support for martial arts training, both in schools and in community centres.  The media would then give prominence to the kind of models we’re looking for.

The free-market system is often blamed for unsustain­able use of limited planetary resources.  Nobody can be free if what they do ensures less freedom for future generations.  Investors now watch helpless as their money produces results nobody wants.  Malema’s call for nationalisation represents a reaction to a system with incomplete feed-back linkages.  Capitalism must find a way to invest as though the future mattered, and there are well-developed models for this – it’s time to use them.  This will allow the huge potential for green development in this country to provide opportunities for thousands of new free thinkers every year.

Why I should be sent to FreedomFest

By normal South African criteria I probably shouldn’t – I’m from a minority in most population categories.  But freedom is not yet a normal phenomenon, so what should be the criteria to represent it?  I suggest the following:

  • Willingness to accept that there are a multiplicity of legitimate perspectives on what freedom could mean, both individually and collectively;
  • Experience in both free and un-free situations, and a willingness to explore the differences compassionately.

I have spent the past eight years studying and practising a form of conflict facili­tation which seeks to validate differences rather than try to mush them into a soup that will please everyone.  The reality is that we are all significantly different, and yet we seek intimacy with other humans.  In Process Work we say that the purpose of conflict is intimacy, which results only when we truly see and are seen – not just the anger but the hurt and fear beneath it.  From there our positions can be truly understood, our differences welcomed, and real agreements made.  Otherwise we resort to com­promise which always leaves frust­ration and separation.  From where we are now there is straight talking to be done, and that can often start off looking like conflict.

I haven’t yet been in prison, but I have been in an army and I was for some time a card-carrying communist.  Both of these epitomised the belief that a higher authority than me knew what was best for me.  When I was carrying placards on the streets I was not allowed to engage meaningfully with the public – I had to call a comrade to do the talking lest I allow my own innate thinking processes to show.  I actually loved some of the individuals there – really caring, sharing people.  Yet their distrust of me and themselves made both these virtues unsustainable.  What I cannot trust I have to control, and the effort involved in that control consumes ever more of the system’s resources until it collapses.

What I would hope to bring to FreedomFest, and to the debate in this country thereafter, is a solid commitment to the principle that each individual human being matters.  InSouth Africait is so easy for me, a white male, to default to the com­fortable paternalism that informed my early life here:  I knew best because I was blessed with a wider vision than you.  Now that we have democracy the assumption is that a similar vision is enjoyed by the majority, but majority is a tyranny.  My experience is that wisdom often hides in the least comfortable of places, often marginalised ones, and it takes care and patience, and skill, to allow it to be fully heard.

I was surprised in the other essay to find myself recommending martial arts as the way to build self-esteem:  I wanted to pursue Aikido myself and always found excuses.  Maybe now will be the time.

Jeremy Burnham

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  1. #1 by Team Henderson on July 7, 2011 - 10:54 am

    Hi Jeremy,

    That’s very powerful. Can you send me an email. I’m coming to Durban to see Noon, and have 4 nights in Mauritius. All the best.

    Team Henderson

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