Defend Truth


To realise Nelson Mandela’s dream, we need ‘fire in the belly’ to drive our nation to take action


Charles Villa-Vicencio is professor emeritus at the University of Cape Town and a former visiting professor in conflict resolution at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He was Research Director for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

South Africa is historically a complex, inter-relational mixture of individuals and groups of people who have the capacity to beat one another up, as well as to coexist. Entrenched habits die hard. The all-too-obvious persistence of apartheid practices proves this.

A nation’s soul is more than a set of genes, moral values or codes of conduct. It includes the “fire in the belly” that drives a nation to act.

The tedious debate on whether Nelson Mandela was a saint or a sellout aside, his opening statement from the dock in the Rivonia Trial in 1964 epitomises the essence of a nation at peace with itself. He stated that a democratic and free society is “an ideal for which I hope to live… and if needs be, an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.

No current South African leader portrays the same commitment. His vision is spurned by post-apartheid South Africa, which is torn apart by greed and fear of the other.

The reality is we have historically, never realised Mandela’s dream. Freedom was not accomplished in the glory days of Shaka, or the Xhosa empire. Any hope of democracy was obliterated by the self-consuming destruction of the Voortrekkers, the arrogance of British colonialism and the crime of apartheid.

As a point of departure, this reality compels us to acknowledge the carnage of our repeated race-centric constructs.

South Africa is historically a complex, inter-relational mixture of individuals and groups of people who have the capacity to beat one another up, as well as to coexist. Entrenched habits die hard. The all-too-obvious persistence of apartheid practices proves this.

There is, at the same time, evidence of people exploring life beyond the established political, cultural and sexual identities. Neurologists remind us that the interrelationship between the human brain and the more abstract mind is influenced by the social bubbles to which we are exposed. Maybe artificial intelligence will, for better or worse, do the rest!

The nation’s identity

At a banal level, exposure to “others” through diverse social communities, sport, integrated schooling and inter-faith encounters, all contribute to the plasticity of the nation’s identity. But more is needed to overcome the impact of social and economic isolation.

The burden of groot apartheid as we once knew it, will never return. Thank God, that die is broken. A successful future, however, depends on the elimination of persistent individual, cultural, economic and institutional barriers that continue to shape the nation. This highlights the need for fundamental policy shifts to realise the objectives encapsulated in our constitutional goals.  

This requires the elimination of institutionalised poverty, as well as issues of load shedding, water shortages, moribund transport and joblessness.

Above all, we need to eradicate entrenched racism and gender discrimination, in addition to the massive threat of climate change and global warming. Collectively these issues remind us just how immense is the “to-do list” that awaits our under-resourced, unequal country on this southern tip of Africa.

We need to muscle up

And yet, at a global level, we scarcely make it onto the radar screen! We need to muscle up on all fronts, from science and mathematics to communication skills, the arts, and education, as well as the daily abuse of the poor in a nationwide campaign to save the country.

The pledge of a hundred-plus CEOs of major businesses to help the government save South Africa from the brink of collapse is a modest beginning, which cannot afford to become yet another cosmetic endeavour. It needs to eradicate our socioeconomic inequalities and spatial separation in the affirmation of the inherent dignity and respect of all people.

Not all people are of equal physical strength, the same IQ, emotional maturity, or assumed social worth, but we are all radically equal at a democratic level. This realisation is essential for the emergence of a minimally decent society, in contrast to various nuances of what is basically a form of amoral realism, where life is a competition for power, recognition and material gain.

The question of coalition government

The diverse dimensions of the crisis we face raises the question of coalition government. This renders the DA’s proposed moonshot at government, comprising a collection of adversarial parties, no more than a frantic pipedream.

Should the ANC fall below the 50% mark in next year’s election, it may well be in a position to simply prop itself up by luring several smaller parties into government. While the failed government of national unity in 1994 was an attempt at political inclusivity, the current quest for coalition politics simply smacks of the maintenance of power.

Immanuel Kant wrote of the “need to act in a way that treats all of humanity, whether our own or that of others, never simply as a means to an end, but as an end in itself”. This requires us to repeatedly ask whether our personal and political behaviour can legitimately be elevated to the status of a universal norm.

Kant’s dictum is perhaps the only viable means, both moral and political, for a nation to save itself from itself. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ben Harper says:

    “Glory days of Shaka” – really? You define the killing of an estimated 2 Million people “glory days” and then go off on your liberal rhetoric? So historic black rulers killing millions is GOOD, anything else by non-black people is arrogant and criminal?

    Yes apartheid was a terrible thing but to glorify mass murderers is not OK, it smacks of anc hypocrisy

  • Peter and Heather Mackie says:

    This article appealed to us, as it offers a clear picture of a sensible way forward that could be attained if enough of us were to respond with determination and commitment. The road would certainly be bumpy, possibly made worse by the failure of political parties to present cogent, sensible, clear, easily understood policies, and bold enough to tell the truth. That very road would also be signposted , reminding the straggling throng making their way along it that the basic purpose and principles of our very human existence were laid down at the dawn of creation, and that the time has come to recognise political inadequacy for what it is, and to take a stand for what is right. We need honourable leaders. Who will they be?

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted