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Let’s try to avoid drive-by charity on Mandela Day

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy. When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

The feel-good sentiment on a day like July 18 shouldn’t allow us to forget that actions performed on one day usually mean little in terms of Madiba’s legacy, which has more to do with changes of attitude than performing random acts of charity.

In November 2009, the United Nations General Assembly declared that 18 July should be commemorated as “Nelson Mandela International Day”, in recognition of his “struggle for democracy internationally and the promotion of a culture of peace”. 

Though there are corners of the Internet that might dispute whether the honour is deserved, I’d imagine that most South Africans find it unimaginable that we’d be where we are today without his leadership.

Sadly, it’s nearly as easy to imagine Mandela himself looking on in dismay at where we are in 2012, and at the quality and character of those who now lead the democracy he helped to birth. And even though nation-building exercises like Mandela Day can frequently appear to be little more than an excuse for some warm and fuzzy sentimentality, my hope is that this year – and today, July 18 – can remind us that 67 minutes of our time, on one day of the year, will probably make no difference at all.

It’s perhaps not meant to make a difference in any case – at least not in isolation, and not because of any particular activity you might perform during the 67 minutes that we’re being encouraged to donate, in honour of Mandela’s 67 years of service to South Africa. The 67 minutes spent assisting some charity or another will be appreciated, but are unlikely to make a lasting difference unless we use the day as motivation to become more engaged in general.

The Nelson Mandela Centre reminds us that the campaign calls on us to “make every day a Mandela Day” rather than engaging in a box-ticking exercise on one day of the year, then thinking that we’ve done our bit. The latter sort of engagement is good for sentiment, and for giving middle-class folks an anecdote to tell over dinner, but not much else.

The sort of sentimentalism that can result from encouraging (and engaging in) drive-by charity has more fundamental consequences than simply allowing us to imagine ourselves as humanitarians or philanthropists for a day. It might serve as a general mechanism for deferring responsibility for improving our environment, while being able to claim that it’s others that are negligent. What did “they” do on Mandela Day, after all?

It sometimes seems that we’re a nation of sentimentalists who have learnt to wring our hands while (much of the time) also sitting on them. Furthermore, if Mazar and Zhong are correct, our occasional “virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviours” due to the fact that we feel like we’ve paid our social dues and can now spend our credit selfishly.

Not that I’m intending to argue that you need to do something on Mandela Day, or any other day. The point is rather that if you do care, and want to do something inspired by Mandela or Mandela Day, it should perhaps be on your own initiative rather than prompted by Primedia or by our nostalgic memories of queuing to vote in 1994.

Any day can effectively be a Mandela Day, and that day can also simply be known as “Tuesday”, “Thursday” or “today”. I’m not disputing the symbolic value of standing together in an attempt to make a difference or show solidarity. However, symbols need to represent something to retain that value or force, and increasingly the representation seems to be entirely self-referential. We engage in symbolic gestures such as lighting a candle for Mandela (on the assigned “day”, of course), and then tomorrow, we go back to race-baiting in online newspaper comment threads. But as long as your Facebook status mentions that candle, everyone will know that you’re Proudly South African.

There’s a simple thing that we can all try to do. It costs nothing and only a marginal increase, if any, in the investment of time. Many of the things that worked about the years after 1994 revolved around listening to and attempting to understand each other. I know it’s less easy to build an advertising campaign around the subtleties of communication than around car headlights. But we didn’t need an advertising campaign then – let’s try to avoid assuming that we need one now. DM


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