I have never been a fan of commemorative days or even months, as has become the custom within the South African government where every month now has a focus, whether it is human rights in March or workers’ rights in May.
I have never understood how one should focus on the issues facing, say, women for one day in August or even for the month of August and shift our focus to heritage in September.
And why should we focus on the issues facing youth on June 16 only, or even for the month of June only, when this segment of our population is easily the biggest and their problems are completely intertwined with all the many problems we face as a society.
In fact, come to think about it, in the bad old days of Apartheid, we used to commemorate June 16 and 17 as “Soweto Day”, because the uprising that started in South Africa’s most populous township in 1976 escalated over two days. But I suppose that is a topic for another conversation.
Of course, I understand that it is impossible to commemorate everything at the same time. We cannot all pay attention all the time to issues facing women, youth, people with disabilities and the elderly. We cannot focus all the time on HIV/Aids and other health issues. We cannot all search all the time for solutions to South Africa’s education crisis, economic woes and unemployment problems.
Or can we?
In the days when I was a young activist, there were some people who we would refer to as “24-hour revolutionaries” because they never took a break from the struggle, not even to party or spend time with their partners. Their focus was firmly on overthrowing the illegitimate Apartheid regime.
The rest of us partied from time to time (some harder than others) and made time for partners (some even for multiple partners). But again I digress.
I suppose you probably have some people like our “24-hour revolutionaries” nowadays, but probably none with the overall commitment to eradicating our society of all its ills. You probably have some people who feel strongly about specific issues and focus all their attention on that.
But you hardly ever seem to find someone who feels as passionate about solving unemployment as they do about finding solutions to the HIV/Aids pandemic, or who feel as strongly about the transformation of our economy as they do about making sure that South African musicians get a fair deal.
As Nelson Mandela continues to battle for his health in a Pretoria hospital, almost eight weeks after he was first admitted, the world will be turning their attention to his 95th birthday on Thursday and many will be making a public commitment to do 67 minutes of good in his honour. This is, of course, meant to mark the 67 years that Mandela spent in service to humanity.
In the weekend papers, celebrities were quoted about how they intend to spend their 67 minutes, visiting hospitals or reading to school children. It would have been good to read the views of “ordinary” people too, because celebrities hardly represent the views of society.
I have a problem with the concept of doing 67 minutes of good in Mandela’s honour, because I feel that his contribution to society – not only in South Africa but the world – cannot be reduced to 67 minutes every 365 days. It should also not be reduced to a celebrity event but should be as inclusive as possible.
Also, I believe that many people use the 67 minutes of good work to justify all the bad things they have done throughout the year. It is almost like the person who sins throughout the week knowing that s/he is going to church on Sunday and will seek forgiveness then, hoping to still get into heaven.
Despite my reservations, I fully support the initiative to mark Mandela’s birthday in a special way and doing it based on the humanitarian spirit for which he is known. If it helps to bring out the best in people who would not otherwise have done any good for society, then I suppose it is positive.
The challenge is to find ways of making sure that the goodwill extends to more than 67 minutes.
The concept of doing good in Mandela’s honour should also extend to us exploring his views on the important issues of the day, and that provides the context for all that he did. All his actions were driven by his commitment to a non-racial, non-sexist and more just society.
I will not be doing anything special for 67 minutes on Thursday because I believe that I need to live my entire life based on the values that someone like Madiba, and his comrades like Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, espoused throughout their lives. And that requires a bit more commitment than a mere 67 minutes. DM
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