There has been this annoying thing about the commemoration of Nelson Mandela over the years. There has been the Nelson Mandela Street, Nelson Mandela Statue, Nelson Mandela Bed and Breakfast, and apparently, Nelson Mandela everything! At times it felt crass and opportunistic. At other times, it felt as if it was a narrowing, if not a misrepresentation of the struggle of the entire history of a people. But in the period since we heard of his death, I have come to believe we need a “Mandela everything”.
This, perhaps, would give us the constant reminder of who Nelson Mandela was, and what he lived for. All the children growing up and those to be born would constantly ask us about who Mandela was, and we would have to give an account. And in the course of that account, we would have to reflect on how practically we live and remember and apply the values of Nelson Mandela. A ”Nelson Mandela everything” would be a reminder of what we need to do in our own lives and personal capacities, to deliver a better South Africa.
People often remark that Mandela wasn’t as titanic an icon in the struggle for freedom as he has been made to be, especially in the media. They say that he was made a symbol of the struggle, and elevated above more deserving people so as to lead and represent the struggle as it was strategically important to do so, especially on the global stage.
But if the man wasn’t deserving of the status when he walked out of prison and into the world stage, he sure rose to the occasion. Nelson Mandela, with every temptation there must have been for self-gratification and self-importance, succeeded to keep loyal to the cause and uphold the confidence and faith of his comrades. Whatever anxiety there was among his comrades that they may have created a monster who could be a self-involved despot interested in self-enrichment, he stayed loyal to the service of the people, never succumbing to the temptation of the self.
As a black person, who our society, and the work of Nelson Mandela has elevated to heights few ever imagined, I have been reminded of the loyalty I owe to our Nelson Mandela and our people whose sacrifice allowed me the opportunities to exploit my own talents.
The cruelty of the Apartheid system would have made sure that despite any of our talents, we would remain gardeners and poorly trained teachers and nurses.
But many of us have had the opportunity for education, and have been legislated into roles which we would have otherwise been denied. I believe that this represents a responsibility, as Mandela assumed, to use the elevation we have had, deservingly or not, to use the power and resources for our own betterment, and for that those left behind.
We have spoken in a great frequency about the importance of economic freedom. And indeed, the struggle for a free society is not yet achieved until a free economy is achieved; in which all have access and opportunity to participate. We have to do more in this regard, from every status we occupy in South Africa. The struggle for economic freedom is ours.
In this regard, Margaret Thatcher, who was among the first people Nelson Mandela visited after his release, observed, “A man’s right to work as he will, to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the state as servant and not as master; these … are the essence of a free economy. And on that freedom all our other freedoms depend.” The rumblings we see currently attest to this observation. It captures the work we have to do taking over from Nelson Mandela so as to fully give meaning to all other freedoms in our Constitution.
All laws and regulations intended to transform our society and economy should be named “Mandela Act of this”, and “Mandela Act of that”, to give them the weight and meaning they deserve. But the struggle to transform our society is no small struggle. It may very well be the largest challenge we have to meet.
We know as South Africans that we face many challenges, of which the work of Nelson Mandela only was a start. The democracy Mandela fought for and saw to its fruition is thus bereft if it doesn’t deliver the benefits of development for all. But as he said, speaking to American journalist Charlie Rose, “It may well be that it is going to be more difficult to maintain a democracy, than it was to bring it into reality. There are going to be very awesome challenges which are going to tax the ability of those who are leading the democratic process in this country. “
It is my personal hope that we do not allow Mandela’s memory to drown in sentimentality and hollow platitudes. The life Mandela lived and the values he represented were tough to embody even though he smiled and danced to them. They will be tough for us too to live out as individuals. But as I watch the tributes and commemorations of Mandela’s life, perhaps these are values worth suffering for. DM
Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few best selling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and advisor to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.
All tortoises are actually turtles. Some turtles however are not tortoises.