Dear Comrades and Friends,
It is my singular honour to stand here tonight, speaking to a foundation that celebrates the life of Billy Nair, a towering hero of our lifelong struggle for worker rights. He inspired many thousands of us to see the factory floor as a site of struggle and the working class’s struggle as a central pillar of our fight for freedom.
Others, such as Curnick Ndlovu and Kisten Moonsamy, who came from similar backgrounds and context, were remarkable people who had earned the respect of people through their commitment, intellect and humility. From Billy Nair’s group we are so fortunate to have comrades like Ebrahim Ebrahim and Eric Mtshali still alive today. We must spend as much time learning from them as we can; they are living libraries of our proud history.
Above all, these struggle fighters were decent human beings who embraced the common good of serving our people.
Comrade Billy Nair was a gentle giant who knew the art of democratic persuasion; the calmness personified, he would respectfully debate, discuss issues and when it came to a point, agree to disagree, always respectfully. He and I agreed on many important strategic issues. But there were times when we had different views, most of them of a tactical nature – but we never stopped talking or trusting each other.
I am also privileged to speak at an occasion where the Billy Nair Foundation honours another great hero and patriot, comrade Ahmed Kathrada, a freedom fighter, and even more importantly, a Warrior of Peace – a man whose life is a solemn reminder that the essence of servant leadership and human values should underpin what we all stand for.
You, comrade Kathrada, are the living testimony to a generation that inspired us, when we arrived as the next generation of the struggle. A generation of fighters who believed Madiba, the founding father of our democracy, when he poignantly argued, “It always seems impossible, until it’s done.”
And that, dear comrades and friends, is what this current moment represents. It is a moment pregnant with possibility of a rebirth. But it is also a dangerous moment, with an ever growing vacuum that might soon be occupied by those who seek not to heal, but to deepen divisions and stir the toxic adrenaline of war.
What we need today, Comrade Kathrada, above all else is (the) ethical leadership you and your generation represent: steady hands, honest hearts and calm minds who can navigate us through turbulent times in the spirit of our shared humanity.
Tonight, as I stand here, I have this horrible sense of déjà vu. I feel we are slipping back to the trenches of our past. I see many people living under siege, working in a volatile, fractured society. And instead of focusing on the real issues that face our people, one in three of whom will go to bed hungry tonight, or the one in four who are unemployed, we talk past each other.
Because… It is convenient. Because… We are not listening. We stopped listening long time ago.
But when we don’t listen to each other, our universities will burn. Our country will burn. And we will again be guilty of betraying the many generations who follow us.
At the heart of (our) leaderless country is a cancerous rot in our State, a predatory faction, identified in the report on state capture, compiled by Adv Thuli Madonsela, during the last months of her term as the Public Protector. In the madness of their feeding frenzy of greed, they cooked up an audacious plan to capture the soul of our nation and drink its blood. They would have feasted on the spoils of their war, capturing not just individual ministers and executives of our state-owned enterprises, but the very heart of our State coffers, had it not been for the individual bravery, courageous will and deep personal integrity of our former Public Protector, Adv Thuli Madonsela and her band of brave warriors.
Now that millions of our fellow citizens are finally mobilised, we have to talk about winning the PEACE. To secure the ground for normalising our society and deepening the public debate on – WHAT is to be DONE – to complete the tasks of the democratic revolution.
The guiding principle of South Africa’s Constitution requires a truly democratic state to use public resources and the annual budget process as a redistributive mechanism to fundamentally transform our highly unequal society. To do this is to bring the bottom up, not take the top higher, or create a fake top, for that matter. And that very same “bottom”, the underclass, is getting bigger, angrier and restless today.
They have a legitimate right to be angry. I would be angry myself.
We are a rich country. The government wants to spend a trillion rand on a nuclear deal we don’t need and certainly we cannot afford and that has nothing to do with our real energy security needs. We have to stand united and kill a nuclear deal, whose stench even before it’s out of the starting blocks already makes the Arms Deal look like a Sunday school picnic. Why would we misspend public resources when there are such competing needs such as financing free quality tertiary education?
We have to condemn and then excise the corruption in our government, which, in terms of the AG’s report, identifies R25-billion in irregular expenditure, which is a sanitised way of describing the term “sleaze”. And we have to investigate the public perception that the inefficiencies in procurement, maladministration and poor technical skills could add tens of billions to this figure. And the economic impact to the country that runs into hundreds of billions. Now is the time to declare an end to non-transparent expenditure and demand full accountability from our Executive arm of our Government.
And the same current political leaders say the state has no money for education of our children. Utter nonsense. We need to clean up the State and tax the wealthy. In particular, we need to tax the obscene bonuses our executives award themselves in both the private and public sectors. We don’t need ultra luxury cars for our officials any longer. We don’t need any more Nkandlas and Saxonwolds. We don’t need mediocre executives in our SOEs constantly needing a lifeline of a bailout while collecting salaries on par with Goldman Sachs and the 1% who control our world.
In the past, we knew that to lose our chains, to challenge unjust authority, we had to organise first, co-create a vision, strategy and tactics of how to fight. We understood that in a democracy power and authority are derived from the people’s consent.
That leadership is derived from a constituency. And power derives from having legitimacy on the ground. That means you earn leadership through hard, painstaking work. You work on a mandate, you report back. You never leave your constituency behind.
Leadership is not just about leaders but leadership they earned through democratic processes in which ordinary people play a vital central role. Good leaders understand the relationship between unity and struggle – they struggle for unity and use that unity to prosecute the struggle – constantly winning hearts and minds of its own, and then the wider constituency, through democratic persuasion.
I learnt, painfully, that the State is always better armed that its citizens will ever be. So we studied Sun Tzu who wrote the manual on the Art of War more than 2,600 years ago; that victory comes from knowing when to attack and when to avoid battle; victory comes from everyone sharing the same goals; victory comes from having a capable commander who has the mandate and support of his troops; and lastly to know your enemy but above all know yourself – your strengths and weaknesses. Then your fight will be successful and pain will be avoided as much as possible.
I learnt that a leader’s role was not to impose ideas from the top. That it is hard work and, often, even frustrating. But nothing replaces the difficult challenge of careful and the meaningful work of uniting our people, building organisation and winning and securing the peace to go forward.
Today we live in a democracy in which social justice and human dignity are at the heart of our democracy. We have a right to meet here today, to organise ourselves and to speak our minds.
But our democracy comes with responsibilities to each other and to the future generations who will rebuild our beautiful country. We have an obligation to defend the land they will inherit, the air they will breathe, the soils that will nourish them with food and the water they will need to live. We do not, and can never, represent the sum total of all history.
To pursue that obligation, we need warriors of peace, not war. Our universities, the factory floor, the community, the village are a continuous struggle site for human dignity and social justice. It’s where we build unity and power. When we fought in the past we knew that burning the factory down meant workers were burning their jobs; they then were dispersed, blacklisted. We knew that if we lost power on the shop floor, it took many years to rebuild.
We knew that in war they say that you must destroy the town in order to drive the enemy away. Bomb the bridges, bomb the dams, bomb the radio stations, destroy the farms, destroy the schools. And when the enemy is driven out, you march triumphantly into the town, or what’s left of it. We understood the bitter irony of mercenaries of war that “in order to save the village, we had to destroy it”.
And that whatever was built by the people over decades now is occupied by the so-called liberators but lies in ruins. Hence the lesson for the soldier in all of us – it’s easy to invade but difficult to occupy.
We inflict injury on ourselves. Violence becomes the language of engagement. I have worked in failed states across the world. I have a thousand horror stories we never want to talk about in our beautiful country.
Our Constitution, deep in its heart, embraces the principles of social justice and human dignity and gives us rights. It gives us the power and the tools to pursue these objectives. We must use the Constitution to enforce our people’s inalienable claim to free quality education, health, water and all other basic rights.
But we do need to learn from history. I was part of the 1976 generation. We were triumphant when Soweto exploded. But by 1977 we were smashed. Our leader, Steve Biko, was murdered, and thousands went to jail, fled into exile or underground.
We asked ourselves the tough question: Why did we fail?
It took soul searching. We realised that we were not the vanguard. We had left our parents, the workers, the women, the religious and rural communities behind. They understood our anger. They were angry that their children were dying in their hundreds.
They stood beside us as individuals, like we do today. But like then, as now, individual bravery cannot defeat a well armed state.
We realised that we had to go down and work at building the mass base of our freedom struggle. That’s why we organised a tsunami of mass rolling action, united under the UDF and Cosatu, and marshalled tens of thousands of grassroots movements, civics, unions, women’s, youth, student, health, education and rural organisations under the clear message of one person, one vote in a democratic, non-racial, non-sexist SA.
That’s why in the similar education crisis in the Eighties, with troops occupying our schools and townships, we managed to unite parents, teachers, academics, unions and communities under the National Education Crisis Committee that marshalled our forces and united us.
The 1990 release of Mandela unleashed powerful forces intent on destabilising any path to democracy. Our country teetered on the brink of a massive civil war. Hundreds were killed every week, flung out of trains, murdered in their sleep in their homes or assassinated in the streets. We never want to go back there.
More than 10,000 people were killed, with no end in sight. We needed a solution. We had to secure the peace. It is always the innocent who are caught in the crossfire of violence. And no peace (was) won, anywhere in the world, in all of history, where violence is the goal and the endgame.
We lose the war the moment we lose the confidence of our constituency and public opinion.
Twenty-three years after we proudly inaugurated our democracy, we have to tackle privilege and the rise of inequality. We have to fix a broken system of governance and challenge the citadels of monopoly capital that continue to exclude the overwhelming majority. We have to stand up and be counted, each and every one of us. No individual, organisation or sector can do this on its own.
While there are many challenges that face us in our country, I caution you all not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As I mentioned before, I have worked in many failed states where millions are still displaced, where rape is a weapon of war, and where recovery from war takes decades.
Let us not go there.
It’s not where the majority of our people want to go. If you want to save the country, don’t destroy it and then leave this to the next generation to rebuild, because it may never happen. Education and training is both a terrain of struggle and co-operation.
I truly believe that over the past years there is a lot of consensus built on the way forward out of this education crisis. Let us build on that.
As an Elder, not as wise as you are, comrade Ahmed Kathrada, I support the demand, made of all of us, to complete our deferred revolution. We cannot postpone any longer the call for economic freedom, justice on the land question and transparent and accountable government. I support the call for a genuine inter-generational dialogue and negotiation, that the student movement has courageously placed on our national agenda.
I feel their pain and I stand beside them in that call for us to deal with the question of decoloniality. Of building a country that genuinely represents all of (its) 55-million citizens and delivers the better life we promised our people in 1994.
Let us think, plan, act and remain together. We can do this. The country, the world is watching and waiting for us.
As Comrade Madiba said once, “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”
That is the moral compass that we need to reinstate into the heart of our democracy.
You, Comrade Ahmed Kathrada, are the living memory that genuine heroes of our struggle are found not by looking up to those who hold power and the megaphone but by working tirelessly in the trenches with our people. That is the most abiding lesson I learnt from your generation. DM
Photo: Ahmed Kathrada, a former South African political prisoner who spent 18 years in prison with late South African president Nelson Mandela, poses in front of his comrade’s portrait at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, South Africa, 07 December 2013. EPA/DAI KUROKAWA
Lawn gnomes used to be real people. The original gnome ornaments were known as Ornamental Hermits.