Are South African's Free by Lawrence Hamilton

A dream deferred?

Joshua Maserow reviews Are South Africans Free?, Lawrence Hamilton's critique of post-apartheid politics


In Are South Africans Free?, political scientist Lawrence Hamilton builds a subversive and nuanced argument concerning the state of the nation. He argues that 20 years after democracy arrived, the majority of South Africans are still waiting for the emancipation promised by the end of apartheid. While there may be a good story to tell, it is not good enough.

Invoking Mandela’s prescient words in A Long Walk to Freedom – “the truth is we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed” –Hamilton reveals the immense danger in assuming that a a liberal democratic constitutional supremacy, with proportional representation, automatically entails economic and political freedom.

Through a limpid critique of the macro-political and macro-economic tenets which undergird the South African polis, he reveals how residual forms of domination, of a local and global nature, continue to deny the quality of life enshrined in South Africa’s vaunted constitution.

In an unadorned prose, Hamilton asserts that philosophical accounts of political freedom, which imagine it independently of the power to envision and institute one’s political and economic needs, fail to understand and evaluate life in the new South Africa. According to the materialist version of freedom he leans on – freedom as power and power as substantive economic and political representation – South Africans still lack freedom. For him, freedom is the capacity of the individual to meet their vital needs within the limits on choice set by community: it is not only the absence of constraint or the capacity to discipline one’s will, as the Liberal intellectual tradition would have it; it is the materialisation of choice in concrete attainment, the capacity to bring about effects. Political freedom is the ladder to other social, political and economic benefits.

With great urgency and acuity, Hamilton brings illustrates the need to reconfigure the power relations which arrange our particular social order in ways that reduce inequality, poverty and unemployment and ensure political accountability. What makes his study persuasive is his figuring of social pathology in terms of freedom. Freedom is something we all want and expect and easily believe we possess under a progressive democratic dispensation. It is inarguably something worth having.

In putting empirical evidence concerning poverty, inequality and education into forthright conversation with political theory, his analysis shows that the prevailing social reality is at odds with a conception of freedom as power – the most appropriate conception of freedom with which to judge the health of South Africa’s democracy.

Rampant poverty, inequality, unemployment, and poor education, together with a macro-economic policy trajectory which subordinates development to growth and a macro-political structure which dissuades rather than encourages accountability to voters, deny South African’s their constitutionally sanctioned right to the host of freedoms present in the Bill of Rights.

In fact, resorting to the language of rights poses a danger to freedom. They are a necessary but insufficient means to the realisation of processes which could meaningfully spread wealth and opportunity to the large swathes of the population struggling for their existence in torrid living conditions with little hope of a better life. To fetishise rights is to brew a new opiate which dulls citizens into thinking they are actually free and have meaningful political and economic agency.

After ranging over the shortcomings of the negotiated settlement, Hamilton suggests several macro-political reforms which could constitute the enabling measures for freedom as power for all citizens in the South African polity. South Africa needs a sovereign parliament, substantive redistribution of wealth and power, and a reconfiguration of the electoral system to furnish citizens with freedom as power.

As long as the freedom-denying structural conditions which allow some to live lavish lives while others toil in misery only a few kilometres away, freedom for all is little more than a dream deferred.

Are South Africans Free? is published by Bloomsbury and is available from



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