The debt whites owe

2013-12-15 14:00

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The negotiated settlement allowed white South Africans to continue to benefit. Isn’t it time they showed some gratitude for what Madiba did?

One of the most enduring memories I have of Nelson Mandela is of a campaign trip to the Northern Cape town of Griquastad during the 1995 local government elections.

On the short walk from the local stadium to lunch at the town hall, provincial and local leaders took turns in bending Madiba’s ear.

Then suddenly, Mandela broke away from them and made a beeline for a lone white policeman who was standing guard in the sun. A few of us journalists followed him and eavesdropped on the conversation with the shell-shocked cop. Mandela asked him about his family, his career, his pay and his general wellbeing.

At the end of the conversation, Mandela told him he was very concerned about the working conditions of policemen. He said it was an issue he had already taken up with the minister and the national police commissioner.

When Mandela rejoined the ear-benders, we stayed behind and spoke to the cop as he recovered from the shock.

He told us that in his 30 years in the service, not one station commander he had worked under had bothered to have that kind of personal conversation with him.

And here was the president and one of the most famous men on earth treating him like a human being.

Whether Mandela made good on his promises was unimportant to him, he said. He had been given his worth. As an Afrikaner he felt more honoured that part of the conversation had been in his own language.

The policeman has never left my mind and I have often thought about how that experience would have changed his attitude towards change in South Africa.

I thought of him again this week as white South Africans joined in the celebration of a man they once called a terrorist and who they wished would never leave jail alive.

They told beautiful stories about how Mandela, the man of forgiveness, the reconciler and the nation-builder had touched their lives.

A school administrator spoke of how after Mandela had visited her school in 1993 she and her staff realised he was “not the monster we all thought he was”.

Sportsmen and administrators spoke with great appreciation about how he had enabled and inspired them to conquer the world.

Businessmen spoke of how he had opened up their entrepreneurial vistas. Artists told of how he enabled them to dream big and do world-class things.

White South Africa has to ask itself the question of how it repays its debt to Mandela by embracing the ideals for which he sacrificed his life. Picture: Deaan Vivier

There was a common theme: Mandela’s visionary and extraordinary leadership relieved white South Africans of the fear of majority rule, removed their pariah status in the world and allowed them to explore their full potential without the guilt of being beneficiaries of apartheid. He gave them human worth.

It was all saccharine stuff, but befitting of this Madiba moment.

But in the quest to celebrate the sweet and lovable Mandela, there is a risk of losing sight of his overall agenda and the reason he went to jail in the first place.

Mandela was jailed for wanting to transform South African society, to do away with racial inequality and build a nonracial society.

So in appreciating Mandela, white South Africa has to ask itself how it will repay its debt to him by embracing that for which he sacrificed his life.

It cannot just be by laying flowers at the shrines around the country and doing good deeds for 67 minutes every July.

Let’s begin with one of the most iconic moments of his presidency, the hoisting of the 1995 Rugby World Cup with Francois Pienaar.

On the day of that Springbok triumph over the All Blacks at Ellis Park 18 years ago, Chester Williams was the only black player on the field.

A few months ago, when the All Blacks came to the same venue for a rugby championship match, only three of the only five black players in the Springbok team saw any action.

The spirit on the stands was also telling. As in all rugby matches, the volume went up tenfold when it came to Die Stem part of the national anthem.

That is the reciprocation the rugby fraternity has given to the man who went against his political party, saved the Springbok emblem and cajoled the black community into accepting the bastardisation of Enoch Sontonga’s wonderful Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.

On the economic front, it has been a depressing sight to see the business sector being dragged kicking and screaming to the transformation table.

While praising Mandela for his vision and opening up opportunities for South African business, the corporate community has been less than enthusiastic about transforming workplaces.

To a large extent, it has also treated black economic empowerment with a cynical attitude rather than as a project to which all South Africans should put their shoulders to the wheel.

Then there is the general white population which, while praising Mandela’s unification of the nation, makes little effort to fully live in the country he built.

By and large, white South Africans have been content to exist in the same enclaves they inhabited before 1994.

Contrary to popular myth in this community, economic and other opportunities still overwhelmingly flow their way.

This week the newspapers, the airwaves and cyberspace have been chock-a-block with discussions about how to honour Mandela and keep his legacy alive.

White South Africans should honour Mandela by taking the big mental leap and embrace more than just his reconciliation philosophies.

They must embrace the transformation of our society and commit to working towards this goal. This is the debt that they owe Mandela.

»?Makhanya is editor at large

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