The headlines splashed around the world recently associating Mandela with a rape charge is the latest tragic way the name of South Africa’s beloved former leader is being desecrated. The Mandela family has made its contribution to doing so, from court battles to rebury the remains of family members to a tacky reality show and drama over the paternity of their offspring. But even more worrying is how the legacy of the Mandela era is fading in the current political turmoil. There is in fact very little reflection of what drove the liberation struggle and transition period in governance and political conduct today. Can those values be recaptured to re-invent South Africa, away from the hopeless state we are in? By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
South African politics of today is cringe worthy. From the ANC failing at its own mandate and stuck defending the indefensible, to the Democratic Alliance’s transformation pretence and series of meaningless political stunts, to the Economic Freedom Fighters’ agenda to provoke mayhem and even block condolence messages, it is difficult to believe these people follow in the footsteps of political giants. Our politics has lost all meaning and value. It is defined by showmanship and vengeance; the words are all rhetoric, the actions one farce after another.
The disconnect from reality is frightening.
Writing in Business Day this week, ANC veteran Ben Turok said South Africa was exhausted, with few new ideas.
“The African National Congress’s new policy documents are full of self-denigration; gone is the confidence of the Nelson Mandela years. The Congress of South African Trade Unions is a shadow of its former self, as is the South African Communist Party theoretical analysis.
“Parliament has lost its focus as the centre of public policy making and is now the source of much derision. Even the Presidency, which seems active in the public domain, is actually more remarkable for non decision-making even on relatively uncontentious issues.”
Turok would know just how far we have strayed from the visions our forefathers had for a non-racial democracy. He is not alone in lamenting the shameful state of leadership. But for his generation, the contrast must be most jarring.
Of course there is no comparing the leaders of today to the giants of yesteryear. From Albert Luthuli’s acceptance speech when he received the Nobel Peace in 1961 to Mandela’s statement from the dock in 1964 when he was the first accused in the Rivonia Trial, to Oliver Tambo’s speech to the United Nations in 1981 calling for international mobilisation for sanctions against Apartheid South Africa, the bar is simply too high.
There was a time in the recent past when speeches and debates were at best mediocre and tolerable. That time has passed. South Africa’s economy is in a parlous state, our society is restless and violence-prone, and it is unsustainable to have so many people stuck in the trap of joblessness and poverty. Yet the political machinery is disconnected from this reality and bogged down in an endless cycle of planning with little implementation, analysing with little understanding and promising with little delivery.
Parliamentary politics, as was evident again this week in the attempt to impeach President Jacob Zuma, is a theatre with no connection to real economic and social conditions on the ground.
Political pundits say South Africa is following the trend of the neighbourhood and the world where liberation movements attain power, succumb to corruption and then devour themselves. Perhaps so. But South Africa had, and still has, the words, the lessons and the legacies of political giants to guide our way forward. But these are being neglected and squandered.
The ANC and SACP are making a sham of political education, and make little effort to pass on the knowledge and values of the liberation struggle to future generations. Often, the memory of the political giants is invoked by ANC and opposition leaders to animate speeches or to score political points. Mandela Day has become a charade when people perform charitable acts with no relation to their behaviour for the rest of the year. The day is commercially and social media driven, a marketing exercise that obscures the political consciousness that defined Mandela.
Neither the political parties nor society is making any real attempt to draw on the knowledge and experience of the golden generation, living or dead, to preserve what they stood for.
Speaking at the Johannesburg launch of a new coffee table book “Triumph of the Human Spirit” produced by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom said there was a number of great people who made huge sacrifices to free our country from the yoke of Apartheid oppression who deserve nothing less than hero status. He singled out Kathrada, who was also celebrating his 86th birthday, saying he continued to be an activist for social justice and equality.
The book features pictures and accounts of Kathrada’s 300-odd visits to Robben Island when he acted as “tour guide” to world leaders and celebrities, including Fidel Castro, Barack Obama, Oprah, Beyonce and Yasser Arafat.
Hanekom, who chairs the board of the Kathrada Foundation, said the elder leader “rekindles the best of the values of a principled liberation struggle, and brings hope and faith in people”.
“He is our greatest ambassador for one of our most iconic and historically significant sites – Robben Island, the place that was his home for 18 years. The place deprived him and many others of their freedom, and at the same time brought freedom to millions of people. It is a sacred site that we may never forget. It is a place that every one in the world should want to visit and every South African should be able to visit. It is a place of pilgrimage – a place that tells the story of the triumph of the human spirit,” Hanekom said.
“There are many stories that need to be told. But the rock and the sand, the prison cells, the lime quarries can’t speak. People need to tell other people the story. It needs to be accurate, authentic and well told.”
Robben Island and its history is one aspect of a rich political legacy that is going to waste at a time when South Africa is in desperate need of inspiration. The words of the elders, particularly Mandela, are immortalised in history but should constantly be interpreted. They spoke of the society South Africa needed to be and the values that should still define us. This is not to say Mandelaism should be political doctrine but the guiding principles to find our way again.
Throughout history, ideology and political philosophy has been shaped by political figures – good and bad – from Mao to Stalin, and teachings of great leaders continue to illuminate the path of their nations from Mahatma Gandhi to Kwame Nkrumah.
In Turkey, over seven million people belong to the Gülen movement, a non-political civic association based on the interpretation of Islam of Fethullah Gülen. With that country also trapped in the vortex of bad leadership and corruption, the movement binds and inspires people to invest in education in 170 countries and work towards peaceful coexistence.
This movement is driven by many of the same values and passions of Nelson Mandela. But Mandela’s was a political cause, defined by the fight for equality, human rights and reconciliation.
At an event in the Free State in September 1994, Mandela said:
“Freedom should not be understood to mean leadership positions or even appointments to top positions. It must be understood as the transformation of the lives ordinary people in the hostels and the ghettos; in the squatter camps; on the farms and in the mine compounds. It means constant consultation between leaders and members of their organisations; it demands of us to be in constant touch with the people, to understand their needs, hopes and fears; and to work together with them to improve their conditions.”
Those words ring as true today as they did then as the context remains unchanged.
South Africans are in search of something. At a time when people are eating rats and snakes in the name of religion, a four-year-old child is raped and hanged from a tree and people stabbed and burnt to death because they are of another nationality, it is clear that our nation is in desperate need of healing and guidance. Anger and violence is evident on our streets and in our homes daily.
Our country cannot continue on the path of self-destruction with the current band of elected representatives clearly not up to task of providing proper leadership. Perhaps this is the time for the people of this country to reach into our past and learn from the history that brought us our democracy.
A few weeks after his release from prison in 1990, Mandela said at a rally in Durban:
“Since my release, I have become more convinced than ever that the real makers of history are the ordinary men and women of our country. Their participation in every decision about the future is the only guarantee of true democracy and freedom.”
Perhaps it is time for ordinary men and women to step forward, recapture the spirit and values of the elders and help reshape the destiny of our nation.
This is a country in which the once hallowed halls of Parliament are the theatre of absurd and violence; where the government is doing its best to withhold the truth about what is really happening and where the real news are drowned in the tide of the “positive” news. We are faced a number of hard realities. The number of trusted institutions of government and democracy is down to one, the Public Protector; many young people are likely never to feel the dignity of employment; for millions of people, the only hope of survival is through government grants; a visit to a state hospital is a risky adventure and going to school could be life-threatening.
This country needs leadership that will take us out of the morass we are in. Once again, we need selfless leadership that can transcend the shallowness and crudeness of the current discourse and offer a vision for a better future. Good leadership is, after all, timeless. DM
Photo: Nelson Mandela joins anti-apartheid veteran Ahmed Kathrada on the eve of his 80th birthday in Houghton, Johannesburg, Thursday, 20 August 2009. (Debbie Yazbek/Nelson Mandela Foundation).
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