Opinionista Ryland Fisher 22 July 2013

Mandela Day: Much ado about…quite a lot, actually

As the world recovers from what appeared to have been an amazing Nelson Mandela Day and we all pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, the question remains whether Madiba was just an exception as far as politicians are concerned and whether we can hold all politicians to the same high standards that have been set by Madiba.

I must admit, as someone who does usually not carried away by mass-staged events, all the activity on Mandela’s 95th birthday last week was impressive. It gives one hope that South Africans can stand together for a common cause, if need be.

I suppose in some way we knew that already, because we stood up against Apartheid (at least some of us did) and we were very successful in the end.

However, I can’t help thinking that it is not a good time to be a politician in South Africa today because, no matter what you do and how well you do it, it will never be able to measure up to anything that has been achieved by Madiba. In some ways it is cruel that South Africa’s first democratically-elected president should also go down as being the best (as least so far).

Is it fair for us to have higher expectations from politicians than we have from other people? Should we not just accept that they are ordinary people with faults like the rest of us? I know many politicians act in a way to make others think that they are special, but they are not.

Mandela himself was at pains to emphasise that he was an ordinary person who made mistakes like everyone else.

I have always used a very simple exercise to judge politicians and just about everybody else with who I come into contact. I use simple and very basic values to judge people, values such as a belief in non-racialism and non-sexism, and a belief in a more equitable society, with all its implications. These include the belief that all people should be equal in terms of the law, and that everyone should have equal access and opportunities to jobs and educational opportunities.

It’s not easy to believe in non-racialism and non-sexism, for instance, because society in many ways socialises us to become racist and sexist. One has to take a conscious decision to be different from what is the norm in society.

Believing in a more equitable society means that one has to question the distribution of wealth in our society and the basis on which that wealth had been accumulated.

Actively propagating and fighting for a non-racial, non-sexist and more equitable society means that one often has to go up against the existing power relations in our society, not only political and social, but also economical.

Nelson Mandela has always been, I believe, driven by similar beliefs. His views and actions in promoting a non-racial society are legendary but they are also based in a reality that South Africa’s economic power relations are skewed and need to be changed.

So, while Mandela has always appeared to reach out with a hand of friendship to the white community in South Africa, it has always been done with the interests of the black community at large; the same black community that has traditionally supported the African National Congress over the years and have voted them into power in successive elections since 1994.

The reason I am raising this is because recently there has been an attempt to separate Mandela from the ANC; as if his actions had been done in isolation. Mandela’s agenda has always been the ANC’s agenda.

The fact that some of the current leadership of the ANC might have veered away from that agenda is almost incidental, however sad it is. However, one can remain (naively, I suppose) hopeful that the ANC’s leadership will at some point go back to the agenda that gained them so much popular international and local support in the dark days of Apartheid.

There is a need for the ANC’s leadership to revisit the values that Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and others stood for and to ask themselves whether they still remain true to those values and whether they are doing enough to actively promote those values.

Failure to do so will lend credence to the notion that the ANC of today is no longer the ANC of Mandela and Tambo. It could assist those who seek to woo voters away from the ANC and who talk about the need for a strong opposition.

I have no problems with a strong opposition but I believe that, first and foremost, the ruling party needs to be committed to making progressive changes in our society. If they do this, our society will change for the better and it almost obviates the need for a strong opposition.

South Africa and indeed the world are desperately looking for the next Nelson Mandela. S/he will most likely be someone who has strong social values and who believes in pushing for those values despite sometimes becoming unpopular among his/her party’s supporters.

There are many people, I believe, in the ANC and in opposition parties, who have the potential to take our country to different levels of greatness and to pay tribute to Mandela’s legacy in the only way we should – by making South Africa a huge success, economically, politically and otherwise – but they will only do this by rising above party politics and putting the interests of all South Africans above narrow party political agendas.

In the process, we might unearth a few more Nelson Mandelas. DM

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