Time to stop this Mandela Day farce

2011-07-16 10:05

The racial tiff between Busa and black business and professional bodies has brought to light what the poor and unemployed have known all along – that South Africa has not sufficiently dealt with many of the issues that have divided it into a society where race and class determine life’s chances.

Busa and black business organisations have realised the hard way that the path to national unity requires hard work and not some fluffy reconciliation talk without working hard at making things work.

Business organisations are discovering that reconciliation and nation building are painstaking processes that don’t allow for shortcuts and public relations stunts.

I thought it was an important lesson for those who make Mandela Day, which is being celebrated tomorrow, into the farce that I believe it is.

To paraphrase Marx, Mandela Day has become an opiate of the people. It tries to circumvent the reality that we have done nothing as a nation in the last 17 years of freedom to deal with why we are not a reconciled people.

It suggests that we are either dishonest with ourselves or delusional. We use Mandela’s name as no more than a pill to dull a troublesome conscience.

The way we celebrate Mandela Day you would swear that Madiba was a super-social worker instead of a man whose stated aim was to overthrow an unjust state.

We mislead our children when we perpetuate the impression that this former commander-in-chief of Umkhonto weSizwe did all of that because he wanted to gentrify decaying neighbourhoods.

Don’t get me wrong, Mandela Day is a positive initiative in principle. Unfortunately it has become a public relations function that, intentionally or not, creates the false impression that the exclusion and marginalisation of the majority of South Africans can be cured by being nice to them for an hour and a bit a year.

It is no different from its other public relations cousin – take a girl child to work. Intentionally or not it assuages the guilt of those who are benefiting from patriarchy or an unjust distribution of wealth and opportunities instead of empowering those excluded.

It turns the haves and the big corporates into modern day missionaries who get the opportunity to feel good about themselves for having done something “for the least of my brothers”.

The champions of Mandela Day have stripped Madiba of all his revolutionary robes. They have recreated Mandela as a teddy bear, like they did with former US president Theodore Roosevelt, who lent his name to the cuddly toy.

By what dominates the discourse you could easily believe Mandela was an international hero because he committed ­random acts of kindness when in truth he dedicated himself to overthrowing a ­racist, unequal and unjust state.

He sacrificed what could have been a comfortable life as an educated black man to lead the charge for a radically different society to the one of his day.

If there is anything that Mandela Day should evoke it should be to make each of us think of what it is we are willing to give up to make South Africa a much more consistently caring society.

Unfortunately in South Africa we love the happy snapshot and soundbite instead of engaging earnestly with uneasy topics that just will not go away. That is why young and old alike wear school uniforms and then go partying on June 16.

It is easier than asking how different our education system, which still imposes a language many millions struggle with, is to the system that the youth of 1976 sought to challenge.

On Mandela Day we would do well to recall that Madiba himself says he dedicated his life and was willing to die for “a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities”.

Mandela Day has it in itself to either perpetuate the delusion of what our struggle was about or to be a call to us to wake up and strive for what Madiba really gave 67 years of his life to. And we know it was not to paint the walls of crêches.

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