Resurrecting the 12 touchstones of activism
- Mark Heywood
- 12 Jul 2017 11:26 (South Africa)
In the tribute he gave to Nelson Mandela at Madiba’s funeral in 2013 Ahmed Kathrada (Uncle Kathy) praised Madiba for having “abundant reserves” of:
“Love, Simplicity, Honesty, Service, Humility, Care, Courage, Foresight, Patience, Tolerance, Equality, Justice.”
Uncle Kathy, who was himself an embodiment of these values, went on to say that it was these values that “continually served as a source of enormous strength to millions of people in South Africa and the world”.
Sadly, as we approach Madiba’s 99th birthday, the world seems in increasingly short supply of these values. Many of his successors in the ANC leadership seem consciously to have turned these values into their exact opposites: in just a few years, courage became cowardice, service became self-service, tolerance became intolerance, and so forth.
As a result of this loss of values the world that Madiba and Kathy sacrificed so much to try and create seems to be turning on its head. As the South African Council of Churches (SACC) has pointed out, the African National Congress has lost its moral authority to govern.
As a result of this loss of values we live in a country where some individuals earn or have inherited fabulous wealth, monies they can never hope to have use for; for example, earlier this year an article pointed out how several CEOs earn the equivalent of the annual average wage by 3pm every day. The average annual wage is R180,000.
As a result of this loss of values we live in a hate-thy-neighbour and get-rich-quick-country, where if you are politically or economically connected you can steal or unfairly access fabulous amounts of money with impunity. Duduzane Zuma is said to have acquired billions of rands. The Guptas are now among the top 10 richest people in SA with a worth over a staggering R10-billion.
As a result of this loss of values the vast majority of poor people – who as a real legacy of apartheid are also black people – live from hand to mouth, the victims of a desperate daily nightmare of violence against the soul and body.
The people who suffer the most from this inversion of Madiba’s values are the people who ANC leaders like Jacob Zuma and Gwede Mantashe frequently call “our people” – as if they own the people.
If they are indeed “our people” then what the ANC leaders are doing is tantamount to robbing from the most vulnerable and defenceless members of their own family. The results are disastrous. While there is much denialism about the living conditions of “our people” incontestable facts supplied by institutions like Statistics South Africa – and the horrors we witness on a daily basis – show Mandela Day 2017 to be a time of desperate and degrading inequality.
We are a county with an epidemic of femicide (described by the dictionary as “the deliberate, wanton violation and massacre of women and girls”): a man, usually a husband or boyfriend, kills one of “our women” on average every eight hours; more than two out of every 10 (20%) of “our women” have experienced physical violence at the hands of a man, mostly a man they know.
We are a country with an epidemic of hunger and malnutrition, where a bottle of red wine on the tables of the gala dinner at the ANC’s policy conference costs more than millions of people have to spend on food in a week.
We are a country that has condemned more than half (60%) of its youth to degrading soul-destroying unemployment, despite the fact that there is so much work to be done in fixing our schools, our hospitals and our cities.
How do we defend ourselves against such suffering of “our people”?
It is true, that part of this inequality is a legacy of apartheid. Madiba and Uncle Kathy were the first to admit that by the time they died their mission to bring about equality in South Africa would be far from complete.
But today’s inequality is as much about the present as it is about the past: it is inextricably linked to greed, corruption, and exploitation by the ruling political and economic elites.
Inequality is linked to what we now call “state capture” (a complicated term for stealing from the poor), which some say steals up to R60-billion a year from the fiscus (the money collected from taxpayers to pay for government and the realisation of human rights) and redirects it to meet the hunger for the wealth of a minority.
Inequality is linked to tax evasion by the rich and illicit capital transfers by multi-national companies.
State capture is not new. Apartheid and colonialism were forms of state capture. The difference now is that the capture of the state takes place in spite of democratic elections, rather than by preventing them. The Zuma faction of the ANC would like you to vote for your capturers.
But the right to vote is cold comfort if it does not bring equality. State capture and democracy do no not sit well together. State capture deepens inequality, which breeds rebellion. Rebellion will necessitate repression, the closing down of political freedoms and the maligning, imprisonment and murder of opponents. Gwede Mantashe has said so at the ANC Policy Conference, where he told delegates that unity was necessary to fight “the colour revolution” and that the ANC needed to do more to consolidate its relations with murderous and authoritarian regimes like Russia, China and India.
So, as we prepare to celebrate Mandela Day 2017, what does this tragic situation mean for us? What duties does it create for us as community activists?
I would argue that the struggle that was led by Madiba brought two lasting gains: the first was the adoption of the Constitution as our supreme law. The Constitution gives power to the people – not to the state or the governing party.
We, the people, ignore that power at our peril.
But those leaders of the ANC who were truly revolutionary also bequeathed to us a revolutionary morality, a set of values that we should do much more to recognise, understand and try and build into our behaviour. These values and the ethic they form should be a checklist, that we apply to ourselves and to every leader who governs on our behalf.
So, in honour of Madiba and his “brother” Uncle Kathy the best thing I can try and recommend to community activists is that we try to resuscitate these values and understand their eternal and universal centrality to the human quest for social justice.
In 1969 Madiba wrote a letter from Robben Island to his young daughters, Zeni and Zindzi, to try and comfort them after the imprisonment of their “beloved” mother. His words convey feelings of love and loss, they lament the denial of the simple pleasures accorded to a family. He talks of Winnie “longing for her little ones” and of their home in Orlando as “the one place in the whole world that is so dear to our hearts”.
However, in the letter, Madiba contrasted this love with Winnie’s “deep love for her country and people”. “Mummy … loves her people with all her heart. She gave up pleasure and comfort in return for a life full of hardship and misery because of the deep love she has for her people and country.”
Love is the most fundamental of human emotions. It is at the essence of our being. Everything is pivotal to love. The way we conduct the struggle for social justice should have love of people, not some theoretical ideological concept, as its start and end point. Does it?
Currently SA is in danger of enabling leaders who foment hate. This is a dangerous and slippery slope, a road to mutual ruin. It was this path that Mandela avoided when he led South Africa away from a racial civil war in the early 1990s. In the simple words of Uncle Kathy, explaining the compromise made by the ANC leaders in 1994: “You can’t have a country of three million enemies.”
We live in a complex world. Simplicity does not mean denying or dumbing down complexity, it means finding ways to understand and convey complexity in a manner that allows real engagement with the issues we face. There is simplicity in every complexity. Simplicity does not mean talking down to people or dumbing things down. It means understanding and then unravelling an issue until you can explain its essence.
One of the problems with politicians and many activists is their need to feel important and indispensable. To do so they usually speak in a language that unduly complicates issues. They have their own minority language! By speaking in tongues they end up talking mostly to themselves which seeks to exclude and disempower people from being part of change.
Honesty does not need explaining! It should speak for itself, but it is frightening how far removed we have departed from it.
Because of his love for people, Madiba was committed to service. Service is what we are here to celebrate today, community service, the willingness to suppress a certain amount of self-interest for the greater good. But it is also important to introspect on the way we serve; do we serve with humility or with arrogance?
Humility is a frame of mind. Being humble means a willingness to listen, to adapt, to correct your own views after listening to someone else’s, to consider everyone’s views as equally important, to convey a demeanour of openness rather than arrogance.
In his quest to serve “the people” Madiba never forgot to care for the individual person, to notice an individual’s pain or joy, to encourage or affirm another person. The moment we stop noticing the pain or joy in others, we lose touch with our own humanity. We stop caring.
In Nelson Mandela and Uncle Kathy’s life courage meant the willingness to sacrifice their privileges for a life of denial and deprivation. They saw this as a duty flowing from their love of “the people”. We often forget that at the time the ANC leaders chose to risk life imprisonment and death, many were relatively comfortable, middle class people, well established in their careers. They risked their material comforts because of the pain they witnessed in others, because injustice, even if it is not directly against your body burns your soul indirectly.
Courage is definitely in short supply at the moment. Many politicians are willing to show courage over dinner, but not in public. For example, it seems likely, and sadly so, that most ANC Members of Parliament will follow the instructions of ANC caucus hatchet-man Jackson Mthembu and vote to save the President in the coming Motion of No Confidence – even though privately they may detest him. It seems they have lost courage. Their material self-interest – their pensions, their bonds, their salaries, their cars, their overseas trips – have become the dominant considerations in the decisions they make.
Yet there are still people of courage, like Makhosi Khoza, Suna Venter, Pravin Gordhan, Mcebisi Jonas, Derek Hanekom, Mondli Gugunbele and many many more public servants whose names we do not know.
A committed activist makes a point of trying to understand the world around him or her, of acquiring knowledge. This requires study and patience. But one value of knowledge is that it teaches us about history and people, it permits foresight, foresight meaning anticipating and planning for something that has not yet happened. Or knowing how to make something happen.
Madiba was patient enough to spend 27 years in prison. He was patient enough to turn down offers of release that would have compromised his values, with the patience that his freedom would come because injustice cannot survive indefinitely, it would be won by the struggles of his comrades in exile, or in the townships.
Tolerance does not mean submission or subservience. It is linked to love and understanding of people. Tolerance resists judgement. It admits the complexity in people. It is intimately connected to humility because a humble person understands his or her limitations. It embraces Ubuntu, because it recognises the interdependence of each of us on another.
In a letter he wrote from Robben Island in 1970 Madiba wrote that he was “influenced more than ever by the conviction that social equality is the only basis of human happiness…” He wrote of the “cruelty” of a “social order that upholds economic privilege for a minority and that condemns the masses to poverty and diseases, illiteracy and the host of evils that accompany a stratified society”. (Letter to Douglas Lukhele, 1970.)
Today inequality still exists in race, class and gender. However equality was not only a dream. Madiba realised that we could start to build the equality we believe in in our own lives and struggles and insisted that we start to live the equality that we demanded of the world. The principles of non-racialism and non-sexism, established as pillars of the practice of the liberation struggle, were an example for activists the world over.
All of human history boils down to a struggle for justice. We are but actors in the latest chapter. The struggle for justice is as old as humanity. It should have been won by now! Yet at times it feels as if we are very far away from victory. However, much as the circumstances and context may change, the twelve values attributed to Madiba by Uncle Kathy are unchanging. They have often been taken for granted as characteristics of revolutionaries. They should not be. They give us power and when combined with the power of the Constitution they require that we stand up and fight for human rights.
My message to you, as community activists is that these 12 principles should be the 12 pillars of nation and community building. They should form part of a compact that we make with the communities we serve. You have been acknowledged today because you care, because you love, because you are involved in community upliftment. These principles validate your activism, show your connection with Madiba and Uncle Kathy, and should inspire you to continue your work and to encourage others to become activists. DM
Keynote Speech for the Sixth International Nelson Mandela Day Community Leadership Awards, Eastwave Radio 92.2FM, Lenasia, 8 July 2017