Freedom is not a Day
Freedom with time
I am present in this watery time as I write about the concept of freedom. Being present is to draw on what Donna Haraway refers to as ‘staying with the trouble’. Time, like memory, holds the truth of silencing, violence, exclusion and flourishing of some bodies and not others. This has led me to understand that time is not contained and is not linear. Time is thick. I am actively staying with troubling freedom through time, which helps me to think more deeply about justice. I like to think of time as leaky and watery, where the past is always affecting and flowing into the present and future. This means to stop thinking of the past as bound in time before Freedom Day on 27 April 1994. As a brown body, woman, researcher, mother, wife, scholar, daughter and child of Apartheid it means being truly present in and with time. So how does this make me think differently about freedom? When I visit St James tidal pool with my family we are not only engaging with the present day tidal pool waters in which we can swim, we are also affected by the fact that it was illegal for me to swim there as a child. With this in mind, I am becoming more response-able about actively staying with the trouble, making murky the perceived free and clear ocean waters of False Bay for all bodies equally. The stories I articulate in this blog are not only mine, they have never only belonged to one individual body.
Freedom with-in relations
I remember when I was young feeling the intense fear of ocean waters. There was no freedom in swimming in the sea. Although tidal pools and lagoons felt less scary, they were still monstrous. I didn’t fully trust those tidal pool walls because the water owned and controlled them. I did not know that other waters existed, my parents and others did. Some of these fears were absorbed into and made marks on my porous body through race, history and the sharp lines of spatial injustice. Watery time has given me new ways of knowing. Now I know that these waters were not actually controlling or owning. It was humans. And it doesn’t mean that the marks are erased or dissolved. Being a coloured family we would only be allowed on certain shores and in certain watery spaces. Municipal pools, the Kalk Bay tunnels for preschool beach outings, Strandfontein beach or long drives to Hermanus lagoon passing all the whites only spaces. These memories still float around in my relationship with water today. I’m not unique. In fact, this truth is not a story of the past. It is a story within multiple stories that are still active on 27 April 2021, Freedom Day in South Africa.
Bodies are relational. By this I mean that humans are not mere individual bodies in the world, we are always more than our organs, skin and physical bodies. I think of our skins as porous, like in the case of me absorbing the memories, exclusions and fears. All bodies are made through memories, space, time, matter, race, place, gender, politics, histories, and relations with other bodies and the world. Being relational does not make us all human in the same way, there is a freedom in knowing this. My brown body has the freedom to swim at Dalebrook tidal pool but I choose not to because relations matter. I don’t look like or sound like the majority of the swimmers who frequent that pool. I have been asked twice in the space of one week recently in the False Bay waters, “Where do you come from?” This question echoes loudly and reminds me how the legacies of Apartheid and the violences of the past are still actively present. They affect which bodies are strangers, which bodies feel free to swim, and which bodies belong in ocean spaces. These relations are not a given, they are not even or equal in freedom. This ongoing injustice propels me to stay with the trouble through swimming, resisting, grieving, supporting brown bodies and paying attention to the ongoing misperceptions of freedom. We are not living in a time where we can simply say the water is now open to all. We can not simplify Freedom Day to a calendar event. How should this make us think about privileged bodies in water? How should we actively pay attention to the marks on brown bodies who have yet to enjoy those same freedoms? I allow this question to linger with me and leak into my journey with freedom diving.
The sun is spilling through the dark and in between the gathering of bodies, the rising noise of being seen and the echoing sounds of honest hesitation seeps into the space. Fins and flasks are laid down and cosy comfortable layers are being removed from bodies whilst the drizzling of watery time grows. The masks and snorkels are not only for seeing what lives in the water, they bring other forms of being seen and different kinds of breathing in these haunted waters where our ancestors became stories. Windmill beach was for coloured bodies during Apartheid, it is adjacent to Boulders beach that was for white people only. My parents and grandparents would travel by train to Simons Town and walk to Windmill on New Year’s Day. There is a complicated freedom in expressing and telling the stories of this place and amplifying the silenced ones. This amplification is in the invitation to stay in the shallow waters when the memories overwhelm our brown bodies. A holding that speaks to watery time that allows the shedding of the mask in moments when the embodied fears and pain floats to the surface. This is a form of justice for relational bodies, a telling of stories with watery time where we are not here for progress or to be measured by breath holds, equalising or meters. We are here for what Karen Barad calls a ‘justice to come’. A staying with the trouble, making murky the single story of a beautiful Windmill beach with waters pulsing with the vibrancies of colourful creatures. A single story where the visibility is heavenly and the octopus becomes a teacher.
A justice to come is not about a destination but a continued maintenance of freedom ideas and activism. It allows the space to pay attention to the fears of kelp, the racing hearts of swirling water and how this memory lives in bodies and the truth of how it was made. We slow down, we listen and we acknowledge that there is no single story of freedom. I am not here to rush watery time or to move on. I refuse to move forward when forward is a leaving behind, I am here to look around and to think with relational bodies. This is about a position of care that denies the simplification of freedom. As I wade through the waters entangled with new ways of thinking about everyday forms of justice and freedom I take this writing with me into all forms of relations. As a mother, wife, plant propagator, friend, christian, lecturer, PhD researcher and resident of False Bay, I am watery life pursuing a justice to come.
About the author: Joanne Peers
Joanne is doctoral researcher at Oulu University in Finland. Her research project investigates how a move away from individual existence to a relational ontology and the impact this move has on Environmental Humanities research and education. Joanne is a Pedagogical Leader at the Centre for Creative Education where she trains BEd students and collaborates with government schools. She works as the Community Support Co-ordinator at Pineland North Primary School.
She can be contacted on Instagram as relational_researcher
Barad, K. 2007. Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. 1st ed. Durham: Duke University Press.
Haraway, D. 2016. Staying with the trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. 1st ed. United States of America: Duke University Press. 1-132.