Last week, South Africa celebrated Mandela Day, the birthday of a man who transcended politics, and changed the course of history through sound political judgement and selfless service. Often his iconic legacy is questioned by those who claim he betrayed us. They miss the point of the enormous sacrifice by an incredible servant leader whose leadership allowed the transition of our nation.
When reflecting on the legacy of Nelson Mandela, I ask which Mandela era you choose to most identify with. Is it Mandela the legal professional? The youth league revolutionary? The political prisoner, the negotiator, or the president and statesman?
One that transcends every aspect and stage of his life is Activist Mandela. To rally a nation around a set of ideals that would outlast any one person or organisation. To see societal injustice and work each day – through a multitude of ways – to find a pathway to end that injustice.
Yet each year on 18 July, we are treated to the routine and performative spectacle trotted out by corporates and organisations alike, where each of us is urged to dedicate “67 minutes” of our year to the values of Madiba.
The collective apathy harboured by so many is dispensed with in a collective show of good, albeit brief, activity often prescribed by one’s employer.
Whether it was making sandwiches for the poor, painting a classroom or volunteering at an animal shelter – again, like each year before it, something fundamental was missing. While acts of kindness are vital for any society, they alone do not sustain it. Acts of kindness are the marinade and seasoning. Sustained activism is the whole shisanyama.
The entire concept of 67 minutes of “activism” once a year won’t cut it. Our country needs more work and more hands and feet to do that work. In a country that is fast fraying at the socioeconomic seams, citizens, companies and organisations cannot dispense with their duty of activism in an hour and a bit.
I watched with a glimmer of hope on the eve of Mandela Day that hordes of people who want to ensure activism triumphs over apathy still exist. And it was a handful of United Democratic Front (UDF) stalwarts on a familiar campaign trail who filled my TV screen on Monday’s evening news.
The UDF is undisputedly the midwife of South African democracy. It was the foundation stone of multiracial, collective activism in South Africa in the pivotal 1980s.
Almost 40 years to the month that the UDF was formed, these men and women were engaging with sectors of society in what they described as “an attempt to revive the spirit of activism as seen in the ’80s”.
They went on to argue just this week that “communities are urged to become more involved in finding solutions to challenges faced by all South Africans” and that “active citizenry is encouraged in finding solutions to the current lack of services, accountability by political leaders and social ills”.
It highlighted the stark dichotomy between what citizens were doing in the years preceding the end of apartheid, and what citizens are doing today.
On 14 August 1991, when the UDF held its last meeting and formally disbanded, it handed over the baton of activism and active citizenry. Instead of a new wave of activism in the rainbow nation era, many citizens ceded that role – and their responsibility – to those in government.
We made the mistake of thinking that those who went into government, the Tripartite Alliance, and civil society, would wear the hats of both activists and politicians.
Do some UDF stalwarts regret that? Is their ardent plea this week driven by the apathy witnessed across the country? One can only surmise.
Where to from here? Those who coalesced under the UDF to remove the racist and evil National Party from government did not do so with only the offer to end apartheid. Instead, they held a vision for a post-apartheid South Africa and asked citizens to believe in that vision.
More than 30 years later, South Africans are anxious about what a post-ANC country has in store. Shared activism must therefore follow that model and paint a vision of a post-ANC South Africa that is better, brighter and more believable.
And this does not mean a disparate collective of political parties hurriedly brought together to fight an election, ending up in blue-light brigades thanks to voter apathy. Rather, a civil society movement that is wider than narrow political party interests – a “united front” of “faith-based institutions, civic associations, trade unions, student organisations, and sports and cultural bodies” to fight oppression born of a post-democratic era, led by the vision and values of our foundational democracy.
There is much that we got right in the first decades of democracy. We created a globally envied Constitution and supporting institutions; we introduced a housing system aimed at the broader population; we later produced a social welfare grant and, in recent years, free tertiary education.
Thousands of inhumane laws were changed and the civil service was reformed as the new government embarked on wholesale reform of education, health, social and infrastructural systems.
But somehow we lost our way. Today the country is crying out for radical reform. The majority of our citizens remain disempowered, disillusioned and, worse, hungry and angry. But this is not the time to lambast all that has gone wrong.
Rather it is for us, as leaders in civil society, whether political, social, business 0r community, to step up and play our role – with all of us, for all of us – for the future of this glorious country.
And for all of us to encourage our fellow citizens and community members to see that – to use a well-worn, contemporary cliché – they are the change they want to be. That it is up to each one of us to get out and change our own and our neighbours’ realities – for the better.
Yes, there is much that has gone awry. But that is not unique to South Africa.
More importantly, there is much that we can do to build one functional, united and successful South Africa – if we all devote just 67 minutes a day/week/month to envisaging a space that we would love to live in and that we can bequeath to the South Africans following in our long journey (Madiba’s Long Walk) to freedom. DM