“When I became a Member of Parliament, I discovered fighting corruption in government circles, fighting dishonesty and trying to promote fairness is often not appreciated by those who benefit from the corrupt practices.” These are the words of Wangari Maathai – a fearless Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Prize Right Livelihood Award laureate, who died in 2011 of ovarian cancer.
I am back in the world of turbulent activism as I turn 60. The body is not as agile but the mind still hungers for new answers to the age-old question- what is to be done? I tire of the rhetoric and dogma of the past. I tire when I listen to the promises that politicians and the “CSO bureaucracy” make. I hear and feel the disappointment of your generation.
We live in a more complex world today. It is not black and white as it was in my youth. Today there is a lot of grey. You need to shape the compelling narrative that can build the concrete pathways of hope for young people out of the marginalisation and joblessness they face today.
I grew up, crushed by the injustice of Apartheid that stole my human dignity. I was inspired by Steve Biko, the charismatic student leader. His words ring out in my ears as clearly as if it were yesterday. “You have nothing to lose but your chains. The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. You can choose to be a bystander or become active in fighting for your human dignity.”
I was part of the 1976 generation who rose up to fight injustice. We had no money, no generous donor waiting to fund us, no business plan. We knew the difference between right and wrong, freedom and oppression. We made a choice. We had been smashed by a brutal Apartheid state. We learnt that change would not come only from students. We had to organise our parents, our communities, women, youth, the professionals, the churches and workers in the factories, shops and mines.
We went into the sprawling townships and villages in our rural areas organising people around their `bread and butter` issues. In the sugar mills, factories and hostels I learnt the real life lessons of building organisation and social transformation. It was from the most exploited, most illiterate and poorest of our country that I learnt to listen, to understand their wisdom and build the mighty movement of workers and communities that was central to toppling Apartheid.
Madiba, the founding father of our democracy, who was a symbol of our struggle for human dignity, reminded us often that “[o]vercoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice; like slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural; it is man-made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
Today I find myself in many discussions that are truly daunting for you, the next generation. We are living in a matrix web of silence. Your generation faces a perfect storm – the intersection between the financial, economic, fuel, food and climate crises. The rising tide of our human greed now threatens the very foundations of our human survival. You have to change the world.
I know today that having the most progressive Constitution, formal democratic institutions and multi-party free and fair elections are not enough to stop the corrosive and systematic abuse of power we see in the world. I see our democracy floundering in our country. I see the rising tide of corruption and the nexus of political and economic elites that strangle our aspirations and rob the next generation of hope.
When we went into government we had noble intentions. With the moral authority of Madiba we were able to curb the excesses of corruption. But we disempowered the engine of our freedom struggle – our people. They became bystanders waiting for the state to deliver our promise of a better life we made in 1994. In hindsight, we were wrong.
Now your generation has to correct the mistakes mine made in South Africa and the world. You will have to be courageous and fearless; like we were in our youth – you have to embrace the idealism of a world that is more caring and just. And then you have to fight for it.
Today you are part of the most interconnected generation in the history of humanity. Technology has resulted in the death of distance and time. We now live in a digital village where nearly every citizen has a mobile phone. You must use the powerful tools of the Internet as a scalpel of truth to bring ethics and justice into our global narrative. You can be an unstoppable tsunami of hope because every citizen can be a journalist and whistleblower. There will be no dark corner where the spotlight of transparency will not reach. On your social media platforms, blogs and mobile phones you can sweep aside the veil of secrecy that hides corruption.
You have to redefine our growth path, our governance and our democracy. Technology is already re-organising the way we think of work, the way we organise our societies, how we access services, educate our children and mobilise our communities around their constitutional rights.
Political wisdom says that each generation has to discover its struggle. I have a sense that you represent a new generation of struggle building on the foundations of the political freedom we won. You will continue the journey to economic freedom and the better life we promised our people in 1994. Your strength lies in united action with communities, social movements, the men and women of integrity in governments, business, faith-based groups and civil society; that your power of fusing online and offline organising can bring a revolution of ethics into the cold steel of technology and strengthen our fight for the survival of the human species and our planet.
Your road is difficult. But as Mandela famously said, “As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest because what counts in life is not the mere fact that we lived. It is the difference we have made in the lives of others.”
I wish you well in your journey of life. As the human values pass from one generation to the next I am sure you will find your place and voice to make this a better world for all. Youth is the dynamo of a society. Working with civil society organisations like Corruption Watch you can unleash that infinite energy of youth and accelerate our efforts for a corruption-free democracy.
True democracy must be built through open societies that embrace the rule of law and where public institutions protect the interests of citizens rather than the political and economic elites. Our struggle for freedom was a struggle to have a voice. It’s time to make your voice heard.
Jay Naidoo DM