The presentation of national orders to a group of remarkable South Africans was a moving reminder, on Freedom Day, of the impressive progress we have made as a society since 1994, something that is all too rarely acknowledged.
Nontsikelelo Qwelane, 92, walked proudly up to the podium to receive her national award from President Jacob Zuma at the Presidential Guest House on Saturday afternoon – the National Order of the Baobab in Bronze.
Walking with great difficulty, with the aid of a walking stick and a Presidency official, she made her way from her front-row seat to the edge of the small stage where Zuma and Dr Cassius Lubisi, the Chancellor of the National Orders, were waiting to give her award.
She bowed, as rehearsed, to acknowledge Zuma, let go of her helper’s hand and gave her silver walking stick to Mandla Feni, director for protocol and ceremonial services in the Presidency, who was helping Zuma and Lubisi to hand out the awards. She walked the next few meters to the President unattended and to great applause from everyone in the house.
After she was handed her award, she walked back to her seat to a standing ovation. She received the biggest applause of the day, followed by the chairwoman of the African Union Commission, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who received the Order of Luthuli in Gold, former Jamaican prime minister Percival Noel James Patterson, who received the Companions of OR Tambo in Gold, and Reverend Jesse Louis Jackson, who received the Companions of OR Tambo in Silver.
Qwelane was described in her commendation as the oldest teacher in South Africa. Born in 1920 at Engcobo in the Eastern Cape, she trained as a teacher and started teaching at the age of 19 at government schools in the Eastern Cape. She later also taught in the Western Cape, Gauteng and Mpumalanga.
Qwelane obtained a MA degree at the University of South Africa at the age of 60. After retiring from government schools, she went to work at private schools and still teaches geography to matric pupils at a private college in Mpumalanga.
She is still active in the community and still drives her own car.
Qwelane’s award, and the brave nature of her acceptance, gives one hope in the spirit of strong South Africans, some of who were rewarded on Saturday. It was a reminder, on Freedom Day, of how much progress we have made as a society in the past 19 years, something that is not normally acknowledged.
A well-known breakfast host with a national radio station made a derogatory tweet last week about people who receive national orders, insinuating that they are all cronies of President Zuma. The sad thing is that people like him, who are quite clearly ignorant about many things in our country, influence so many other ignorant people in our country.
The people who were honoured on Saturday represented an amazing mixture of great South Africans and foreigners, who have contributed to the upliftment of our society in different ways. They would have deserved to be honoured, despite who the president is.
It was sad to see Colin Wells Eglin (Order of the Baobab in Silver) struggling to make his way onto the stage, but the smile on his face when he made his way back to his seat, award in hand, spoke volumes about the prestige of the national orders.
Eglin, who played a leading role in the Progressive Party in Parliament, through some very difficult times, could never be described as a “crony” of President Zuma, even at the age of 88.
The same can be said about all the other recipients who included Mosibudi Mangena and Neville Alexander (the Order of Luthuli in Silver), Chad le Clos and Pretty Yende (the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver), Dr Glenda Gray, Dr Bernie Fanaroff and Professor George Ekama (the Order of Mapungubwe in Silver, or Garnet de la Hunt and Ridwan Mia (the Order of the Baobab in Silver).
The radio host, who I prefer not to name, owes all these people an apology. Instead of doing the expected thing – looking for fault where there is none – we should be celebrating the achievements of these amazing South Africans and hoping that their achievements will spur others on to do even better.
Quite often, and especially in the days of social media, opinions are voiced without any substance and often based on complete ignorance.
For instance, not many people know the members of the Advisory Council on National Orders, but a number of very prominent South African individuals serve on the council (not all of them members of the ANC or close to the president) who have the difficult job of deciding who should receive the few national orders that are available each year.
As with most awards, there will always be people who feel that so-and-so should have been rewarded, but not everyone can be rewarded.
What is necessary is to take a leaf out of Qwelane’s book and to educate our young people about these awards and about the people who received them. There are some inspirational stories, not only about political activism, but about achievement against formidable odds.
Sitting at the national orders function on Saturday, I felt tears coming to my eyes on more than one occasion as I realised once again that we have an amazing country and some pretty amazing people who can hold their own against the best in the world. That, surely, is a cause to celebrate. DM
Ryland Fisher has more than 30 years of experience in the media industry as an editor, journalist, columnist, author, senior manager and executive. Among his media assignments were as Editor of the Cape Times and The New Age and as assistant editor at the Sunday Times.Fisher is the author of Race (published 2007), a book dealing with some of the issues related to race and racism in post-apartheid South Africa. His first book, Making the Media Work for You (2002), provided insights into the media industry in South Africa. He is executive chairperson of the Cape Town Festival, which he initiated while editor of the Cape Times in 1999 as part of the One City Many Cultures project. He also runs a consultancy focusing on media and social cohesion.