In this lifetime, an icon lives and breathes among us. Future generations will envy us for having been in the presence of a character and visionary so extraordinary that legends of fantasy can hardly compete. Yet we the blessed, the witnesses to the wonder of Mandela-ism, are in great need of a new light. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
There’s a hive of activity all over the country today as South Africans do their bit to pay tribute to our most eminent citizen, Nelson Mandela on his 94th birthday, as part of the international 67 minutes campaign to promote human solidarity and public service.
It is a day when goodwill gestures make people feel better about themselves and we imagine that the thousands of little deeds will do something to alleviate the misery of the less fortunate.
But in these desperate social and economic times, the millions of our fellow countrymen and women stuck in the poverty trap are looking for more than goodwill gestures. They live in squalor, have long lost hope and are fatigued by living every day as lesser humans.
They want more from government and political leaders than promises about job creation and service delivery. They are fed up with hearing about the better healthcare that will come someday and how their children will be taught essential skills so that they may one day get jobs.
For every hard day that passes, there is a new promise: maybe proper shelter to keep out the cold and the rain, a strip of land that will provide food, perhaps a factory that will create jobs. Each unfulfilled promise means another day in anguish.
Those in positions of power tell us that the despairing conditions of the people living in extreme poverty keep them awake at night. Yet in the day, the talk does not translate into actions that are able to rescue those crying for help.
The poor have no option but to wait. A generation of South Africans who have no employment and no hope sits and waits for these promises to materialise.
A whole other generation is coming, and it may not want to wait because its future is destined for catastrophe.
And what about the rest of us, perhaps less desperate but just as hopeless? We saw the making of Mandela-ism – the cultivation of a nation through reconciliation and healing – and then saw it disintegrate.
We were the generation that bore witness to that sunrise on 27 April 1994 and watched the miracle of democracy and helped mould our special blend of rainbow patriotism. We walked the journey of our transition and watched the tall silhouette of Mandela disappear into the sunset.
And now we’re standing in the darkness, where no light of leadership is visible. In the darkness, what was good about our nation is being stolen and violated. Our anxiety stems not so much from the evil that lurks in the darkness but that we do not know how to bring the light back. It is the winter of our discontent.
In the darkness, we can dream of what we need to make the sun rise again: a new Mandela. A new incarnation of what made Nelson Mandela so exceptional a leader and so human an icon. A person who in word and deed encompasses the best in humanity and who can conquer the worst in humanity through goodness.
What would it take to create a new people’s hero, a person motivated by Ubuntu and selflessness to lead a nation out of desperation? A person who could be a symbol whom we all look to in order to break the chains of powerlessness and subjection that prevent us from tackling the demons exploiting the darkness?
Nelson Mandela was born to be great. Every experience on his long walk made him even greater. His extreme persecution, his imprisonment, made him a legend for millions who could not see or hear him for 27 years. His character and gestures from his release to the time he disappeared from public life is what transfigured him into a living saint.
A new hero may not need to be born great or be tormented and locked away to achieve greatness. A new leader need not be bent on rebellion or prey on frustration. The world has moved on since our legion of struggle heroes was created and the prototype of a liberation fighter emerging from meagre beginnings to rise against a powerful and oppressive system is no longer relevant.
In a time of human advancement and the existence of constitutional liberties, a new type of champion is needed.
A new Mandela may not need to be inspirational but would awaken us to the full reality of exploitation and dysfunction inherent around us. He or she would make us see that which blinds us into subjugation and break the cowardice and selfishness which makes us accepting of inequality and suffering. The new Mandela would show us paths to development and prosperity, and lead us away from the logjam of useless debate over our economic trajectory.
It is the values and vision which would set this leader apart from the rest, in the same way Nelson Mandela did. But in every other sense, this new leader would have to be just like us.
A new-age leader would be educated, technology savvy and probably communicate via social media. They would probably live in a suburb, drive a sedan, shop at Woolworths and have frequent flyer miles. This leader would exist in the contradiction of fighting on behalf of the poor while not living among them.
Who, then, are we looking for? A frail old man to replicate himself into a younger being or someone among us to rise and take up the challenge?
Nelson Mandela knew the answers long before we had to ask it: “As we were our own liberators, so too must we change our own lives for the better.”
On heroes, Madiba said: “No single individual can assume the role of hero or Messiah”.
What he expects of us: “As I sit in Qunu and grow as ancient as its hills, I will continue to entertain the hope that there has emerged a cadre of leaders in my own country and region, on my continent and in the world, which will not allow that any should be denied their freedom, as we were, that any should be turned into refugees, as we were, that any should be condemned to go hungry, as we were, that any should be stripped of their human dignity, as we were.”
And when that dreaded day comes: “On my last day I want to know that those who remain behind will say: ‘The man who lies here has done his duty for his country and his people’.”
Happy birthday, Tata. May millions of Mandelas rise, ready to do our duty for our country and our people as you have. DM
Photo by Reuters.