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Freedom Day: After 27 years, we need a new social consensus and our own inner ‘Madiba’


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and is a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

We stand on the edge of a new precipice. The world’s leading climate scientists have warned there are only a dozen years left for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5°C. There is no time to lose. We cannot leave a legacy of a wasteland to our children and grandchildren. It’s time to rise above our differences, for the sake of humanity and our planet.

“The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us. We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination.”

Nelson Mandela, Inaugural Address, 10 May 1994.

This Freedom Day we celebrate 27 years of freedom on 27 April 2021. And we commemorate the 27 years that Nelson Mandela gave of his life in jail for our freedom.

Twenty-seven years… What can happen in those 10,000 days or so?

What did Madiba do in his 27 years in jail?

He learnt the language of the oppressor. He studied their history, their poetry, their culture to be able to talk to the heart of his “enemies”.  He went deeply within himself. To know who he was. What he had to do to make his life worthwhile.

In his prison cell, no bigger than a bathroom, he made that most important journey of his life. From the mind, the agitated centre of attachments, desires and ego to the softness, forgiving centre of the seat of the soul, the heart. He understood who he was. What he had to do beyond his political activism, his anger and the tsunami of his churning human emotions. In those uncharted waters of his inner world, he navigated the minefield of ancestral trauma and woundedness of his life.

And as he pierced the veil of pain and suffering, he transcended the limitations of mind, body and intellect. And he saw the incredible trellis of life. The unlimited potential of the intelligence we possess. That Divine Energy we are all part of. Indivisible. Interconnected. We are one with everything we share our Mother Earth with. The People. The eagle. The land. The forest. The river. The ocean. Everything is sacred.

And that’s why he was a priceless gift to us and the world. His forgiving heart, his generous spirit of reconciliation. His endearing hands of compassion, comforting our sorrows, reaching out across the chasms of our deep racial and class divisions. Coaxing us to work together. To rise above our narrow constituencies and our diametrically opposed views to find the common ground. To remind us that every conflict, every war has to end with the protagonists sitting around the table to rebuild the bridges of healing our bleeding wounds and building a more intelligent cooperation.

That was the mandate of the Mandela generation. Nothing more. And as we stepped back from the precipice of racial civil war that would have engulfed us all and destroyed the very foundations of our society, we committed to a democracy based on one person, one vote in a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa. The Mandela generation did not promise us anything more than the tools of transforming our society and addressing the deep economic and social legacy of apartheid. They created a safe container of a sovereign progressive Constitution to guide our work.

I am deeply grateful to our founding father and all who selflessly worked alongside him for shepherding us through a dangerous terrain of explosive violence into the opening up of a new chapter in our history.  

But history continues to unfold.

What have the last 27 years meant to us? What did we do with the power we were given?

The reality is we are still deeply divided. Not just by race. But also by class. Status. Employment. Religion. Gender. Poverty. Suffering. The syndrome of the “Big Chief”, and party bosses who know what is best for the people, have failed us. The toxic masculinity of politics today deepen divisions, using the legitimate grievances of our people to drive personal political agendas. Ascendency to power does not change the basic fundamentals of deprivation and suffering. It just opens the doors to a new brigade of wannabes to feed at the trough.

The state has become the site of contestation. Not about the delivery of the better life we promised our people. But a fierce war within the political class rearranging their chairs on the Titanic. Our political, moral crisis is dominated by “dirty money” in which decisions are driven by the emissaries of billionaires, both locally and globally. It is that system itself that needs to be challenged, not the individual decisions it makes. For 27 years citizens have surrendered their power to these leaders. Now we need to reclaim our power.

So how do we want to walk together in the next 27 years?

My last 27 years have convinced me that changing the system is not rocket science. The biggest challenge we face is changing the human being. On this Freedom Day, I will ask myself what more I can do to find that “Madiba” within. That is the choice for every citizen. To make ourselves better human beings. To reach out across the chasm in small ways with kindness. And those millions of small actions will achieve more than grandiose promises.

I understand today that we need a new social consensus. One not based on corporatist elites in business, government and labour but on an authentic intergenerational dialogue through grassroots engagement from the bottom up. So reach out as many are doing, and street by street, school by school and village by village we all need to put our shoulders to the wheel of hope.

I am an elder today. I have no ambition to seek position or power. I strive in everything I do to unify the differences and to support an authentic intergenerational dialogue. To listen carefully to the voices of young people. To encourage and nurture their agency. We stand at the edge of a new precipice. The world’s leading climate scientists have warned there are only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5°C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

There is no time to lose. We cannot leave a legacy of a wasteland to our children and grandchildren.

What will you do in the next 27 years?

We all share a wound of our past. Whether that manifests in the violence of superiority or the resentment of a feeling of inferiority, it is a wound to be healed. If Mandela and many of his generation made such tremendous sacrifices to bring us to this point, then who am I not to continue to be of selfless service to others? Why should I not find that courage to take that journey from my head to my heart and heal myself? And reach out to others as we walk a path guided by ancestral wisdom to rise above our differences. To redefine civilisation beyond our addictive consumption and material accumulation. To see Mother Earth as a co-creator, teacher and symbiotic partner.

Mandela once wisely said, “It always looks impossible, until it’s done.”

On this day let us ask ourselves how the seeds we plant today will yield a harvest of hope and joy 27 years from now. It is time to plan, today, so that our children and grandchildren have a tomorrow. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dick Binge Binge says:

    Thank you Jay. We can but try no matter how small our constituency is. It could grow exponentially just like climate change. I feel inspired.

  • Eugene Isaacs says:

    Well said and duly noted Mr. Naidoo!

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Nice, Jay. You need a higher platform and a bigger audience, preferably in the ANC, who must learn to see Mother Earth as a co-creator, teacher and symbiotic partner.

    • Rod H MacLeod says:

      As head of COSATU, Mr Naidoo had a huge and high platform within the ANC when it mattered most. He chose a pathway to personal riches. This “novel altruisme” is unbelievable in every sense.

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