Betraying Madiba

2009-07-23 00:00

CORRECTLY, we were all urged to celebrate former President Nelson Mandela’s 91st birthday last Saturday by devoting 67 minutes of our time to helping others. If Mandela were to use us as a mirror, would he see himself in us?

Days before Saturday, radio stations frantically recorded voices of “important people” in our society telling us how they would spend their 67 minutes in response to Mandela’s call. It was as though they all went to the same adviser, as their stories were so similar: visiting old-age homes, painting buildings, cleaning this or cleaning that.

Indeed, Mandela Day gave these important people a rare opportunity to take pictures and to be captured by TV cameras looking good. At a stroke, they appeared as philanthropic beings who care for those in need. Yet if Mandela were to use them as a mirror, he would hardly see himself in most of these important people.

A few weeks ago, we read in newspapers about billions of rands of taxpayers’ money that went into the pockets of public servants who stealthily own companies that benefited from government tenders. But the important people who looked nice on Mandela Day issued not a single statement of condemnation.

In most communities, municipal services have almost collapsed, but the mayors and councillors were also part of the important people who devoted 67 minutes of their time last Saturday. Bread producers who are known for fixing their prices did not hesitate to wish Mandela well.

We again find ourselves confronted with the very troubling question: If Mandela were to use us as a mirror, would he see himself in us? We need not have spent 27 years in jail to answer this soul-searching question. We only need to be South African and occupy offices in the public or private sphere. Anyone who pursues selfish interests without regard for the good of society wasted his or her 67 minutes by posing before TV cameras.

In a society where corruption is rife, Mandela has no meaning. In a society where leaders have no moral integrity, Mandela means nothing. In a society where the love of material wealth takes precedence over social progress, the celebration of Mandela is nothing more than a good or bad performance in a theatre. Are these ills not ubiquitous in South Africa today?

We ought to search for honest answers in the consciousness of the errors committed by societies elsewhere. Most post-independent African states recovered very late from the excitement induced by the heroism of those who politically liberated them. While poor people ululated, those in positions of power were busy lining their pockets and corrupting every public and private institution.

It is a common tactic of those in power to make the poor endlessly salute struggle heroes, so that the toiling masses do not come to terms with their reality — that their conditions have not changed. Further, it serves the interests of the powerful for the poor to wallow in the illusion that they have tangibly benefited from the struggle.

President Barack Obama, when addressing the Ghanaian parliament on July 11, cautioned: “Only this time, we’ve learnt that it will not be giants like [Kwame] Nkrumah and [Jomo] Kenyatta who will determine Africa’s future. Instead, it will be you — the men and women in Ghana’s parliament [and] the people you represent. It will be the young people brimming with talent and energy and hope who can claim the future that so many in previous generations never realised.”

Obama is right. Nkrumah, Kenyatta and Mandela have done their part and sounding their names, however loud, will not eradicate corruption in Ghana, Kenya or South Africa.

When we recover from the collective excitement generated by Mandela Day, and after our important people have stopped posing in front of TV cameras, we should ask critical questions about South Africa today and tomorrow. When some leader in our society urges us to follow in Mandela’s footsteps, we must ask if he or she is a reflection of the values embodied by Madiba.

Those who have vision for our country cannot but share the hope Obama has in “young people who are speaking up against patronage, and participating in the political process”. Of course, we are not blessed with plenty such young people today, who participate in the political process. They are there but hugely intimidated by those who survive by public insults and patronage.

But society is not static. There will come a time when the champions of insults will be society’s best examples of what not to be. In time, the young men and women who are currently studying at our universities will take over the running of our society. Armed with education, and hopefully with moral consciousness, they will repulse that which is socially unpalatable.


• Prince Mashele is head of the crime, justice and politics programme at the Institute for Security Studies. He writes in his personal capacity.

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