Democracy's been captured - we need a new vision for change

2017-12-14 14:15
Interview with the chief executive officer of the Nelson Mandela Foundation Sello Hatang. Photo: Herman Verwey

Interview with the chief executive officer of the Nelson Mandela Foundation Sello Hatang. Photo: Herman Verwey

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Madiba was a fighter. As a young boy from the Eastern Cape one of his favourite pastimes was stick fighting and, as he grew older, he became a boxer and enjoyed the 'science of combat'. This fighting spirit was harnessed and was one of those who formed the ANC's armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation") and he received military training from the Algerian National Liberation Front at bases across the border in Morocco.

Yet, violence was not the only way in which Madiba fought. He fought in court as an attorney and as an accused. As a prisoner he fought for his dignity, for respect and for the liberation of the country, despite being confined to a small island off the Cape coast.

When he left prison, he fought for democracy, fought for reconciliation and fought for justice. The 'weapons' that he used changed; from the hands of a boxer, to the soldier's gun, to knowledge of the law, to the persuasion of a politician. However, in reflection in 2003, he noted that, "The best weapon is to sit down and talk." Madiba's fighting spirit and his belief in dialogue have been key inspirations in machining the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF).

The last four years that I have spent at the helm of the Foundation have been a tumultuous period. However, events over the last eighteen months have made me surer that we lie at a precipice of a profound and fundamental change.

Within the country we have seen increases in incidents of violent crime, higher unemployment, visible corruption in the public and private sector. Globally, political polarisation, ethnic chauvinism and white supremacy have become normalised. The failure of democracy to deliver has seen, in the words of activist Khaya Sithole, a replacement of the politics of participation with the politics of ratification. In the analysis of researchers at the NMF, democracy itself has been captured.

In response to this capture, to institutional violence, looting, racism, sexism and inequality, new forms of resistance have emerged. A new language has developed to express and resist oppression and new forms of movement building, dialogue and exchange have flourished.

As we move into the centenary of Madiba's birth, a year which we hope will provide the inspiration and impetus for change, we hark back to Madiba's fighting spirit for justice and his 'weapons' of resistance. Over the last two years, both the board and the management team of the NMF have grappled with how to position our organisation in a way that would play to our strengths and to be a conduit for the radical change necessary.

This required sustained reflection and a sense of purpose that both speak to the moment as well as the values of Madiba but also to the need of a new liberatory vision of the future. In doing so, we have reengaged with our overarching purpose as an organisation to define our type of activism as the 'weapons' of change.

It is our belief that above the noise of politicking, the protection of privilege and righteous rage, there is a need for a new social compact, based on social justice, that can be expressed in new forms of politics and economics.

We know that this is a goal that will take many years and that may only emerge after social disorder. However, in the short term the NMF can strive to foster conditions that will support and enable a new and better way of collective living.

Four key lines will underpin these goals. Firstly, there is a need to protect and promote constitutionalism whilst acknowledging the current shortcomings of our constitutional democracy. The legacy of Nelson Mandela is one inextricably bound up with South Africa's Constitution and the translation of the rights therein for the benefit of all our people.

Secondly, we must adopt a policy of openness towards what is to come. We cannot predict the future, and we have to approach it in an open way – which resonates with the manner in which Madiba lived his life. Key to this is dialogue, which we will pair with advocacy to foreground social justice.

Thirdly, we must facilitate understanding of where we are. We will do all we can to help the public understand the nature and the extent of the crisis we are in, through research and analysis. An example of how we do this will be through the delivering of a 'National Conversation on Poverty and Inequality' built on three years of research through the Mandela Initiative.

Finally, we must nurture young leaders. We will provide support and resources to capable emerging leaders to enable them to ride this historical wave. In this vein it is with great pleasure that we have announced the first cohort of AFRE fellows that will work toward dismantling anti-black racism in 2018.

It is through these interventions that the NMF will take on an activist role, leveraging our unique position, rooting our interventions with experience and robust research whilst remaining a trusted convener drawing on the Mandela legacy. Our organisation has a particular role to play within an increasingly resilient and resourceful civil society.

We are inspired by hundreds of people on a daily basis. From our annual lecture speaker, Amina J. Mohammed, who has centered gender and the environment at the highest levels, to Matshidiso 'Tshidi' Mokoape, a young woman who has dedicated her life to assisting disabled and orphaned children with a home, to Mark Heywood and his team at Section 27 who have used the courts and Constitution for equality, dignity and accountability, to the most marginalised, like the young Michael Komape.

Amina, Tshidi, Mark and the NMF all share a vision of a future that places people at the centre of this new social compact, one that centralises Madiba's values, including ubuntu. And whilst the exact form of this social compact may change, what we do share is knowing what we do not want.

We know that we shouldn't have a society where Section 27 is in court for social justice. Instead we should create a society in which the state and elites are in constant dialogue with its people. A society in which Tshidi doesn't need to rely on the generosity of others to keep afloat and where she never needs to turn a child away. And where Amina doesn't have to force states to protect women from men or demand equality. We have to live up to the Setswana adage that goes, 'Ngwana ke sejo wa tlhakanelwa', which simply means 'a child belongs to us all'. We carry responsibility for growing children who won't need counselling to deal with our woundedness. As such, as a nation it is our collective responsibility to raise our children to be better people. It is our collective national duty to build the future generations that Madiba so dearly loved.

As we move toward 2018 and celebrate the life of Madiba, it is our duty to celebrate his fighting spirit. But more importantly, we must work toward that new vision. In the words of Madiba, "A movement without a vision would be a movement without moral foundation". But this vision and dream must always be renewed, as Oshebeng Koonyaditse recently observed, "Martin Luther King had a dream which he did not live to see happen. We continue to dream to see it happen!' Drawing on our new overarching purpose:

Our purpose is not to enter the political fray, or to sustain any particular political model. It is to work towards building new communities to enable dialogue and new forms of social purpose and solidarity.

Our purpose is not to solve current problems on their own terms, but to address them in a way that enables new social possibilities to emerge. Our vision looks to the future, and to the social conditions that will empower us to meet that future.   

I thank all of those who have made our work to date possible. These include donors, staff, trustees, speakers and service providers. As we move toward building a vision of the future, having you at your side, guiding us and following makes us stronger. Re tletse ditebogo!

- Hatang is the chief executive officer of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

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Read more on:    nelson mandela foundation  |  madiba  |  nelson mandela  |  ubuntu  |  democracy

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