“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.” – Nelson Mandela, Long Walk To Freedom.
Today we honour Mandela on his 95th birthday. It is celebrated across the world as International Mandela Day (67 minutes of volunteering represent the 67 years of active political service Mandela gave to the cause of freedom and social justice).
We marvel at an extraordinary man who lived an extraordinary life and made extraordinary sacrifices in the service of his people, nation and a better world for all. We admire his human values of selfless leadership. Is this not the time to ask ourselves some tough questions?
Are we ready to go beyond 67 minutes of public service a year to celebrate his values and dedication to our cause of freedom? Do we have leaders who think not just about the next elections but about the next generation?
The world is hungry for visionary leadership and action; leadership that personifies integrity, honesty and service to the people; in the lives of the most marginalised, they see a glaring omission; that is the sadness that pervades the world. In slums, villages, the schools, trains, and community halls, we weep because we yearn for that leadership that could live his values every day; leaders who are characterised by the absence of political arrogance.
Mandela was a product of human struggle against brutal odds. It is such times of fierce contest between justice and injustice that produces these extraordinary heroes and heroines. I see them emerge in places where global corporate greed strangles the hopes of communities. When people at the grassroots take a stand and say “Enough is enough. We reject the shrill divisive language and the insatiable gluttony of our political and economic elites.”
Last week, I paid my respects to the community of Lac-Mégantic, where my wife Lucie`s mother, Louise Grondin, was born. A runaway train of death, with its incendiary load of crude oil, crashed into the downtown of this picturesque town, its deadly blast sending a towering cloud of toxic fumes and a wave of fire that scorched everything in its path, killing dozens of innocent people.
Claire Boulet, a family friend who runs a small bakery there, said in outrage, “It just about money, money, money. We work hard to feed our families. We have to pay so much for our taxes and services. Yet these big, powerful companies can do what they want. They don’t care about ordinary people. What is important is their profit. We cannot continue. We have to organise ourselves or our children will have no world left.” Her sister perished in the fireball.
That is a story repeated many times in communities I meet across the world.
In Dakar, Bangladesh, at the site of the deadly Rana Square collapse where more than a thousand workers were killed, Nazma Akter, the general secretary of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, turned to me and said, “We need people in the West to understand that there is nothing free. When you buy cheap clothing or buy one and get one free, realise that nothing is free. Someone has to pay. Here it is the workers with their lives. Our lives are cheap. While we know we have to fight for union rights here, our struggle is interconnected and global.”
The building, owned by a politically connected businessman, had days before been visited by government building inspectors who required its closure and evacuation. This never happened.
As I listened to a group of young bloggers in Abuja earlier this year, Bibi, a young and dynamic publisher, said sharply, “Our problem is not leadership. It’s followership; we vote for leaders even when we know they are corrupt. We think in terms of tribe, religion, culture, language. We let ourselves be divided and our votes bought off when elections happen.”
In Mukuru Kwa Reuben slum, one of the largest in Nairobi, Dorice, a slum dweller, reflected the views of so many in the world: “We do not live the lives of middle-class women in the suburbs. Here we fight for the right to a toilet. We are treated like dogs. We live in one room, with our children, even teenagers. We give birth there. We eat, sleep, cook and raise our children in these one-room shacks. We are forgotten. Life is hard. But we have our own organisation now.”
I reflect on our freedom struggle in South Africa. It was organised around the bread and butter issues of our people. We co-created a vision and strategy that ensured local ownership and grassroots leadership that would withstand the most ferocious attacks of our enemy. We never drew up a business plan or sought out some generous donor. We never entered the struggle for development as a career. We were volunteers driven by passion. We were outraged by social injustice. It made us fearless. It was this political tsunami that produced the Mandelas of our past.
In a time where we desperately search for heroes and heroines, perhaps we have been searching too long in the wrong place. It is time to refocus our gaze and look downwards to our people, where we will find legions of Mandelas who are working selflessly amongst the poorest, bringing hope to their doorway every day – in a world that may seem to have stopped caring.
As Mandela famously said, “As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest. What counts in life is not the mere fact that we lived. It is the difference we have made in the lives of others.”
That is the clarity of purpose and singularity of our solidarity we need to bring our world and country back to the path that Nelson Mandela lit for us. That is the true meaning of Mandela Day. DM
"Last century’s magic is this year’s science." ~ Cherie Priest