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Measuring freedom in Africa

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Picture: Luc Gnago/REUTERS/Taken January 8, 2013 – South African soldiers during a joint patrol with Central African Republic (CAR) soldiers in the streets of Bangui. Years of conflict, political instability and “an absence of state authority” resulted in a seven out of 100 score for the CAR, the writer says.

By Kim Heller.

How does one measure freedom in Africa, a Continent whose liberty was violated by western imperialism and colonialism, and where political independence has yet to break through the heavy chains of economic subjugation and surrender?

Some analysts measure freedom on the scale of socio-political factors. This often includes the level of access to electoral and legal rights and the protection of constitutional liberties. Others measure freedom on an axis of economic self-determination, which usually includes the ownership of land and wealth. Many judge freedom on a matrix of media independent and freedom of expression. And then there are those who would argue that freedom is impossible in nations that subscribe to foreign rather than endogenous cultural, knowledge and value systems.

The measurement of freedom often takes the fancy of Western scholars whose very governments and funders are or have been responsible for the curtailing or snuffing out the very freedoms that are now the subject of such intense investigation. There are many an organisation, scholar, and analyst with a genuine passion for and preoccupation with human rights, civil liberties and equitable political and economic systems.

This has produced a dearth of research on the elusive subject of freedom. Whether all of this helps us gain a true perspective on what freedom really means to ordinary folk will undoubtedly be an unsettling discourse and unsettled debate for many years to come.

Freedom House, a US based NGO provides an annual measure of freedom in nations across the world, using a set of “universal” standardised criteria. The organisation’s Freedom in the World annual study, focuses on the rights and freedoms of individuals in countries across the globe. Countries are measured on their performance on a set of political rights and civil liberties.

Freedom House then accords each country a status; “Free”, “Partly Free” or “Not Free”. The methodology and matrix used by Freedom House is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Measures are focused largely on the occurrence of free and fair elections, the level of political pluralism and participation, discrimination, official corruption, government transparency, judicial and media independence, freedom of speech and religious expression.

In the Freedom in the World 2023 study, eighty four of the 195 countries studied were considered “Free”, and 57 “Not Free”. Of the 54 African countries surveyed, 17 percent were rated “Free”, 37 percent “partly free”, and 46 percent “unfree”.

African countries that were categorised as not free and scored poorest included Ethiopia, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Somalia. Ethiopia was seen to lack a sufficiently strong rule of law, which resulted in poor protection of its citizens’ basic human rights.

“Rampant corruption, economic collapse and atrocities against civilians, journalists and aid workers” are cited as reasons for a score of just one out of a possible 100 on the Freedom scale for South Sudan.

For the Central African Republic, “pervasive insecurity and an absence of state authority in much of the country” resulted in a seven out of 100 score. The report cites how in Somalia, “ongoing insecurity, human rights abuses by both state and non-state actors occur regularly”, and the country was awarded a paltry score of 8 out of 100.

South Africa is rated “Free” in the Freedom in the World 2023 study with an overall tally of 79 out of 100. On political rights it scores thirty-three out of a possible 40 points, and for civil liberties 46 out of 60. South Africa performs most poorly on issues related to safeguards against official corruption, equality before the law and protective measures against domestic violence.

The report notes that, in reality, the Constitution offers little protection for many who face discrimination, or little relief for those caught in the net of economic inequality.

The report points out that “Inequality levels in South Africa are among the highest in the world”. “Only a small percentage of the population benefits from large state industries, and the economy is controlled by a relatively small number of people belonging to the political and business elite.”

Certainly, this level of structural inequality impacts enormously on the freedom of black South Africans whose liberty, land and rights were snatched away so brutally in the smash and grab of apartheid and colonialism. In the case of South Africa, freedom is still largely a white man’s territory.

In terms of discrimination, the report also cites the outbreak of xenophobic violence against immigrants from other African countries and how the government’s 2019 National Action Plan (NAP) to Combat Racism, racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance “has largely failed to improve accountability for perpetrators of xenophobic abuse and provide justice for their victims”.

The inadequacy of services and accommodations for ‘disabled’ people also came to the surface and the report makes mention of how ‘disabled ‘schoolchildren are often excluded from the mainstream education system and placed in facilities that do not always or consistently support their specific development challenges.

The study exposed how legislation has failed to curb insanely high levels of gender-based violence, quoting SAPS shocking statistic of 20 106 reported cases of rape between April to September of 2022. The report also points out how sexual harassment and attacks on LGBT+ persons are commonplace. On the issue of official corruption in South Africa, reference is made to how the Auditor General’s annual reports have outlined accountability failures that have yet to be addressed.

The report also makes mention of how President Cyril Ramaphosa himself, is the subject of a number of corruption-related investigations during 2022.

The study showed that there have been declines in freedoms over the past in every region of the world. Libya, South Sudan, Tanzania, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Burundi, Gabon and Mozambique are among the African countries that have shown the greatest downswings, according to this study. The report cites how corruption, misgovernance, impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have left many African countries especially “vulnerable to irregular seizures of power by military or executive officials”.

Measuring freedom is a complex exercise as the very notion of freedom is difficult to define in simple or linear terms. For freedom is not an abstract concept. In the end, there is no study in the world that can tell a person whether he or she is free or not.

There is a high measure of arrogance in the ready arbitrator who decides what the standard for freedom is, or what it should be, or how it should be achieved.

Freedom is not a game with scores, for more often than not it is a war against fear. As the great songstress Nina Simone said; “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean really, no fear!”

For now, in many parts of the world, and in Africa, freedom is tinged with a high measure of fear as the most fundamental human rights and civil liberties are under attack.

Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.