South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: What would Mandela do? Some thoughts on moving beyond anger and rhetoric

Op-Ed: What would Mandela do? Some thoughts on moving beyond anger and rhetoric

In just over a week we will, for the first time, celebrate Nelson Mandela’s birthday without his physical presence. While we will for a long time continue to cast and recast his legacy and the role he played in helping to liberate, heal and reconcile this country, we need to begin to move inwards to find and rekindle Mandela’s vision of who we could be. If we don’t, extreme voices will hijack the future. By MARIANNE THAMM.

While many correctly dismiss “language activist” Steve Hofmeyr as an attention-seeking narcissist, or, at best, a bargain basement Neil Diamond, he attracts a particular kind of attention and elicits specific atavistic responses in both those who love him and those who loathe what he represents.

This weekend Hofmeyr tweeted proudly that he had decided to take the “politically incorrect” opportunity at the Innibos festival in Nelspruit to lead a 45 000-strong crowd of almost exclusively white people in a rendition of the old national anthem “Die Stem”. The crowd sang in one voice and from the heart, Hofmeyr recounted to his 105,000 Twitter followers.

Reading the tweet and responses to it, one wonders what those 45,000 people felt or thought while singing along. Did they empty their minds and nostalgically travel back to some forgotten, discredited country?

Did anyone for a moment ponder the irony that in democratic South Africa they are free to sing this song in their own language in an all-white gathering without fear of vilification, arrest and detention? Did anyone in the crowd hear a little voice in their head that asked, “How would fellow South Africans feel hearing you sing this song this way right now?”

“Would it be hurtful?”

Let’s simplify the question.

How would Nelson Mandela, whose death the nation apparently collectively mourned, feel? The man who in the greater democratic, national project – the man with his eye tactically on the future – wore a Springbok rugby jersey in 1995 as an act of reconciliation?

What’s that you say? He would have forgiven it, he would have understood? Perhaps, but he spent 27 years of his life in jail because of the ideology of racial superiority and paternalism that this specific song came to represent. Sing it by all means, but understand what singing it means to others and what it does to you, as a human being.


I feel an argument coming on….yes, here it is. “What about ‘Kill the Boer’? What about ‘Kill the Boer’? What about ‘Kill the Boer’?”

Well, somewhere in an unwritten rulebook, which could count as the equivalent of the FAK guide, someone said it is ok to sing it, because it’s an old struggle song…The argument cuts both ways.

It is as unacceptable to sing ‘Dubul’ibhunu’ (and the ANC agreed in 2012) but surely you can’t complain – as do so many of Hofmeyr’s supporters – if you keep laying claim to the right to sing “your” songs that others find hurtful.

‘Die Stem’ and ‘Dubul’ibhunu’ and those driven to sing it loudly both drown out a much more pressing national conversation we should be having.

Reciprocity is one of the first and vital steps in any human interaction. Reciprocity, as Nelson Mandela showed us, is what is required for transformation and reconciliation.

There is growing evidence of a hardening of attitudes among some Afrikaners in South Africa. Writing in Beeld this week, Dr Piet Croucamp of the University of Johannesburg suggested Afrikaners were becoming increasingly alienated from the national project – a disaffection partly driven by “the smug racism of Julius Malema, the corruption of officials and politicians’ lust for power”.

Ironically, the discussion about needing to adapt and find new entry points into the “national project” is not one that is occurring among white English-speaking South Africans – well, at least not in public. Somehow issues of transformation, or the lack of it, at traditionally English-speaking universities, receives much less attention.

The point is, at present, Afrikaners are talking about and engaging with issues of culture, language and identity, while white English-speaking South Africans are not.

“While tenacity might have got us across the Drakensburg, survival now requires the sophistication of intelligent adaptation,” wrote Croucamp this week.

He added that if those singing along with Hofmeyr had tears in their eyes while he performed his “primitive ritual” they carried in their hearts the seeds of destruction “of Afrikaans and Afrikanerdom… Your nostalgia feeds the aversion of other South Africans and in the end, through your own doing, will destroy your language and culture.”

So, where do we begin again? Perhaps by agreeing that the constitutional democracy we live in is one we conjured to life, TOGETHER, and that it offers a way for us to each find or re-find ourselves in this new country we are in the process of creating.

We have been distracted from the idea of what national transformation means by the overwhelming headlines about corruption and incompetence generated by President Jacob Zuma’s term of office. Italians have it as bad, but the difference is they don’t turn on each other in the face of it. Americans, when one political party loses, don’t threaten to pack up and emigrate elsewhere. Somewhere in all of this is a lesson. The country is made up of more than just its politicians, it’s attention-seeking celebrities and it’s narcissistic Twitterati.

This is all a sideshow to a much bigger picture; one that will continue to exist long after Jacob Zuma has retired to Nkandla and paid back the R250 million he owes taxpayers.

Ultimately, we are so much more than our politicians, our political leaders or those who would corral us into neat antagonistic, opposing camps.

Away from the headlines many ordinary South Africans are getting on with life and do view themselves as part of a broader South Africa. There are South Africans of all races who are deeply committed to helping fellow South Africans whether in small gestures or through major philanthropic interventions. Just because we don’t read about these – or choose not to when they are exposed – doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

There are many voices gently nudging us towards each other. Now, all of this might sound decidedly “touchy feely”, but if we don’t dream it, if we don’t agree to the national project, then what is there?

Professor Njabulo Ndebele, one of this country’s foremost intellectuals and thinkers, has written extensively on post-Apartheid South Africa. In 2009, in an essay titled “Of Pretence and Protest”, Ndebele wrote, “Depending on the choice we make, we either relive the past to no end or we create the future. The latter is the bigger challenge and requires that we recommit to our solemn commitment to nonracialism, accompanied by visionary and ethical leadership.

“We must recommit to diversity in solidarity, collaboration, trust, accountability and civility, all of which have a binding effect that should allow us to be aware of barriers that could be permissive or inhibitive, but to learn to think and feel beyond them and across time.”

And as we prepare to honour Nelson Mandela on 18 July, perhaps we should recommit ourselves, without him being here, to the dream of what he knew could be across time. DM

Photo: Former President Nelson Mandela smiles as he formally announces his retirement from public life at his foundations offices in Johannesburg, June 1, 2004. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings


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