Final Word

Freelancing and its bloody history despite PR


Lately the volatile South African political landscape has been awash with modern foreign soldiers of fortune, selling their skills to the highest bidder, creating a scene drowning in irony.

Most prominent amongst these was an army marching under the flag of Bell Pottinger (BP) – a company calling itself a public relations (PR) outfit. In typical PR-speak, the operatives of BP would rather refer to themselves as freelancer, than soldiers of fortune.

The weapon of choice of the modern freelancers is the proverbial pen, replacing the sword, or lance of the soldiers of old during the Middle Ages when the term and concept of freelancers first developed.

Enter irony number one. PR-operations are supposed to build good relations and create a positive image for its clients. BP’s mission in South Africa was, however in main, exactly the opposite – to create grounds for conflict.

And, if their mission is not successfully countered, to turn the proverb that the pen is mightier than the swords on its head, the final story of this chapter in the country’s history will be written in blood. But then, that will bring the BP freelancers in line with the original tradition of freelancers.

First use of term

Most sources claim that the term freelancers was first recorded in 1819 by Sir Walter Scott in his novel, Ivanhoe, where a feudal lord refers to the paid army he has assembled as such.

And, in his description we also find some similarities to the circumstances which brought the BP army to South Africa shores. He writes: “I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them – I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.” (Our emphasis.)

However, though his use of the term might have popularised it – its use increased in the years following on the publication of Ivanhoe – our research turned up at least one earlier use of the term.

In 1809, ten years before Scott’s book, Sir Thomas N. Brown published the book The Life and Times of Hugh Miller, in which, regarding mercenary soldiers, he wrote: “But when the battle was hottest, Hugh Miller was a loyal combatant, not a free-lance.”

Older roots

While it is not known when the term was used for the first time, the use of mercenaries to do battle, dates to at least about 1000 A.D. and were important factors in major military campaigns since the 12th century.

What we do know from Middle Age Latin is that, before they become known as freelancers, hired soldiers were called stipendiarii, or stipendiaries, meaning they were given a stipend for fighting as soliderii ("soldiers"), or simply mercennarius ("mercenaries").

Over time, the use of the term broadened and by 1903 the term “freelance” was recognised as a verb (he/she freelances) by the Oxford English Dictionary. Since it has passed into the everyday lexicon as a noun, adjective, and adverb.

Today the term is seldom used in military contexts and freelancer mostly refer to a person who works as a writer, designer, performer, or the like, selling work or services by the hour, day, job, etc., rather than working on a regular salary basis for one employer.

Final word in the money

The general meaning context attached to the term freelance, and its predecessors like mercenary or even stipendiarii might have changed over time, but the role that money play remained the one constant factor from its early days.

Part of my own family history illustrates this. Our first South African forefather arrived in the Cape in 1714, named Wilhelm Kushzner, from the Hungarian part of the then Austria.

He joined the German forces as a soldier of fortune, or freelancer, if you want – during the so-called Holy War in Spain. When he felt the Germans short changed him on his stipend, he absconded and got on a Dutch ship heading for the Cape.

There he joined the Dutch East India Company as a soldier, hired to do border guarding at what today is Stellenbosch.

His surname, which he got from the town Kushz, from hence he came, under Dutch influence it eventually became Coetzer. Back translated it means “from Kushz.”

Some of the original family also headed to America, and amongst who’s descendants count the presents controversial son-in-law of president Donald Trump, Jared Kushner – his surname also meaning ’from Kushz.’ 

It makes one wonder if the young man was maybe freelancing for the Russians’

by Piet Coetzer

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