What does Liberty mean to me?

Sheila Burnett
Deborah Levy

Liberty means never having to look into the eyes of a human being who has no rights. You will never forget how that makes you feel.  I am thinking about my childhood in apartheid South Africa. Here are some of the questions I asked myself when I was seven years old;  ‘If a white adult sets his dogs on a black child or hits the child’s father with sticks and whips, is he a safe person to sit next to on a bus or to say hello to over the fence? Is he mad or is he normal?

If the neighbours and police and judges and teachers say, ‘Of course his behaviour is normal, it’s fine by us ’,  was life worth living? And what about the people who did not think it was normal- were there enough of them in the world?”

I still believe that when we turn our back on human rights, we numb the knowing parts of our minds and make a space for something terrible to happen to someone else. We are connected to each other’s cruelty and to each other’s kindness. Nelson Mandela knew this, and if we are inspired by the courage of his forgiving message, we should never forget that he was once a man with no human rights.


Deborah Levy writes fiction, plays and poetry. Her work has been staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and she is the author of highly praised novels, including 'Beautiful Mutants', 'Swallowing Geography' and 'Billy and Girl'. Her collection of short stories 'Black Vodka' was shortlisted for the 2013 Frank O'Connor Short Story Award. Her latest novel 'Swimming Home' was serialised on Radio 4 as a Book at Bedtime and was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. Penguin Books will publish her highly praised essay this February 'Things I Don't Want to Know', a response to Orwell's 'Why I Write', as well as reissues of Deborah's work 'Early Levy'. 

While government watches you, who watches the government?