Thuli Madonsela: Tribe on a quest for social justice

The top of Mount Kilimanjaro
The top of Mount Kilimanjaro

This diverse group uses fun activities in a drive to fight inequality, poverty and other challenges our communities and country face

There is a tribe that is emerging. It’s not a tribe in the traditional sense. It is a tribe of do-gooders.

Its members are men and women who don’t ask who created the mess. They ask: Is there a way I can help?

When the nation experienced a visceral reaction towards President Cyril Ramaphosa over the latest unemployment figures, this group neither reacted with anger nor despondency.

The reaction was, what can we do better? Implied was that it takes a nation, and not just the president, to build a successful nation.

The unlikely founder of this tribe is the unassuming Richard Mabaso, a young man from a nondescript village in Mpumalanga, operating under the theme #Trek4Mandela.

The project is undergirded by the Nelson Mandela Foundation of which Sello Hatang is a champion.

During our recent Mount Kilimanjaro climb, Hatang told a charming story of how the foundation bought into the dream of a young person who only had a dream and R5 airtime for his first contact with them.

He was looking for support to summit Kilimanjaro on Mandela Day 2012 to honour Madiba and in the process raise funds for sanitary pads to uphold the dignity of and keep girls at school.

The rest as they say is history.

The tribe is diverse in all conceivable ways, including ethnicity, national origin, age, class, gender, religion, language and residence.

Some of its members summitted Kilimanjaro on Women’s Day in honour of the women of 1956 and others who leveraged whatever little power and privilege they had under apartheid to deliver democracy and political freedoms.

I was part of this group of 23 – 13 of them women – having been asked by Mabaso to headline the expedition.

Incidentally, I have eventually crossed summitting Kilimanjaro from my bucket list after reading about the dangers associated with such a quest.

Read: I have decided to step up and show up by climbing Kilimanjaro - Madonsela

What sealed the deal for me was Mabaso’s compelling case for the dignity of the girl child and its resonance with my current quest, as Stellenbosch University social justice chair, to ensure that all understand that social justice is everybody’s business and join hands to advance it, particularly under the rubric of the M-Plan for Social Justice.

The generation of the Mandelas, Tambos, Sisulus and Mbekis considered political freedom and democracy as the most pressing challenge of its time. It took this as a quest and delivered on it.

This quest can be traced as far back as the life of Pixley Ka Yisa Seme, who at age 19 optimistically declared that not only would racial oppression become history but that Africa would teach the world a better way of human coexistence, the way of ubuntu.

At the core of ubuntu is compassion for each other, fairness and human solidarity. Imagine where we would be if we followed the wise counsel of that 19-year-old.

Democracy and political freedom were accordingly delivered by overlapping generations, including Charlotte Maxeke and Ka Seme’s generation, the Mandela generation and mine.

The reality is every generation has an opportunity and responsibility to determine and address the most pressing challenge of its time.

What is the pressing challenge of our time and the millennial generation?

I believe social justice and the climate crisis are the most pressing challenges of our time.

I get a sense that the tribe on a quest for fun with a purpose, as we call ourselves, views social justice, primarily involving poverty and structural inequality, as the most pressing challenge of our time.

Members see themselves as part of a generation that must expand the frontiers of freedom for all against contemporary social ills that deprive the majority of the historically oppressed in particular from equal enjoyment of the fruits of democracy.

Key among social ills confronting our generation are hunger and the anger that goes with it.

They also include structural inequality, whose claws have many, such as Palesa Musa, gripped by an unshakable poverty trap against which their own efforts alone are inadequate for escape.

Members of this tribe are drawn together by the idea of fun with a purpose, the sport of choice being mountain climbing and hiking.

Thuli Madonsela

Naturally, the climate crisis and the environment are a concern and so are challenges such as good governance, the rule of law and ending corruption.

Mabaso’s outfit is aptly named Imbumba Foundation.

Just as there are naysayers about the CEO Sleep-out campaign, there are murmurs about the advisability of climbing mountains to raise funds as opposed to direct donations.

My experience with the tribe today, is that it has proven the importance and advisability of this fund-raising method.

It’s not just about raising funds for the dignity of girls and menstrual hygiene. At the core of the quest is highlighting social justice as everyone’s concern.

If we don’t take urgent and impactful action to end poverty and reduce structural inequality we do so at our peril.

Social injustice is a threat to sustainable economic growth as leaving others behind creates structural inefficiency in the economy and social fabric.

Simply put, society functions with the bulk of its resources cobbled in poverty and socioeconomic exclusion. This undermines society’s progress.

Social injustice also delivers society to demagogues posing a threat to democracy and the rule of law.

The weaponisation of social justice helps demagogues thrive as they harvest the anger and despair of social exclusion as fodder for their support base.

The generation of the Mandelas, Tambos, Sisulus and Mbekis considered political freedom and democracy as the most pressing challenge of its time. It took this as a quest and delivered on it.

A growing body of research shows that giving to charity without personal involvement has less personal benefits than getting involved.

In a world where focus on work threatens to suck life out of many while others increasingly lack a sense of belonging with isolation becoming a rampant factor in depression, being a member of a purpose-driven tribe is not a bad idea.

Indeed all members who summited on August 9 and others who participated in preparatory hikes have extolled the virtues of belonging and being part of a cause bigger than oneself.

I’ve also personally learnt that if you are deeply involved in solving a problem you are less despondent or angry about its magnitude.

One of my observations from the tribe beyond its sense of duty is that members do not subscribe to a binary “Animal Farm” view of the world that black is good and white is bad or rich is bad and poor is good.

It is for this reason that my colleague Professor Sonia Human became a hit. Fondly called Prof Human Being, she was judged by the content of her character and heart and not by her skin colour.

But the tribe is not blind to the reality of privilege and disadvantage along the same lines.

In fact it’s mostly a recognition of their privilege and the duty to leverage it to lift others that drives them.

Many have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps but recognise some of the privileges that helped make things easier for them.

Is the tribe bound by fun with a purpose a model of the South Africa we want?

One thing for sure is that, it’s our time to identify and confront the most pressing challenge of our time.

Why not start with the dignity of the girl child? In the degradation of the dignity of children, society is poisoned at its source.

Madonsela is professor and law trust chair of social justice at Stellenbosch University and founder of the Thuma Foundation and the Social Justice M-Plan


Is the tribe bound by fun with a purpose a model of the SA we want?

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