Sello Hatang | Staying away from the brink

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
Former president Nelson Mandela remains an icon of selfless leadership and humility. Photo: Getty Images
Former president Nelson Mandela remains an icon of selfless leadership and humility. Photo: Getty Images


It is all too easy to be distracted by the debates over the success or otherwise of the March 20 national shutdown, become intrigued by the images and the meanings of Julius Malema and Carl Niehaus marching shoulder to shoulder, reflect on the racialised patterns of opening and closing, emerging and retreating.

While not dismissing such lines of enquiry, I for one found myself enjoying Human Rights Day with what I can only describe as a modest afterglow – left by the sense I had on March 20 of a capable state and a responsible citizenry. Instead of absent police officers (our daily experience and our memory of the nightmare that was July 2021), we enjoyed what many mature democracies would regard as a strong and visible police presence. Instead of security forces unleashing violence on communities, as we saw during the first Covid-19 lockdown, we saw order and restraint. Instead of protest spiralling into unrestrained public violence, we  enjoyed images reminding us of that long tradition in our country of disciplined protest action.

READ: EFF claims shutdown a success, blames uncooperative bus companies for low turnout at rallies

Yes, we are capable. We can still find the will to do what is required. We can deliver. The afterglow I was experiencing also came from the noticeable decrease in load shedding at Eskom in recent days. The afterglow came from the memory of how government executed its public health mandate in that unprecedented first year of the pandemic. The afterglow came also from recent encounters with the SA Revenue Service, which is clearly fixed after years of brokenness and is now providing the service envisaged for it in the Constitution.

We can. But too often we choose not to. We are not a broken state, yet. Routinely now, gangster formations join hands with the corrupted to loot and to unravel and to paralyse. In July 2021 we saw what amounted to an insurrection in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng and yet still no one has been prosecuted for their role in it.

The construction mafia must be uprooted. Killings by gangs in communities must cease. Drug peddlers must be prosecuted. The terror unleashed by the zama zamas in neighbourhoods must be stopped. I could go on and on. If we do not act in at least some of these areas, it won’t be long before such destructive energy becomes so strong that it will become impossible for us to ever claim that we were once a capable state. We are on the brink.

READ: Inside Labour | Julius Malema’s ideological incoherence on full display

An argument has been made by government ministers in the security cluster that it would be too costly to regularly run security operations such as the one we saw during the EFF national shutdown.  It made me wonder if a study has been conducted on the cost of inaction against a general sense of insecurity felt by citizens and tourists. The cost of lives lost as a result of violent crime, the loss of dignity from sexual crimes. The cost on our reputation as a destination of choice in terms of tourism. The cost of young lives ravaged by drugs. Businesses are finding new homes in countries safer than ours. The cost of inaction is, by far, much higher than we can imagine.

If this historical moment in our country has any meaning, then it is this, for far too long, we have lingered; for too long, we have waited for moments of crisis before acting decisively. For too long, it has taken extraordinary challenges to stir us into what is regarded as ordinary action in mature democracies.  The time for focused and sustained endeavour is now.

We need a president who is fully present and as clear as a bell on what the task at hand is. We need a state and a government doing routinely that which at present they seem to be willing to do only when the chips are down. They can and they must make South Africa safer and they must do so without resorting to tactics like intimidating bus companies into not providing transport to protestors. It is one thing to be tough, another to use state power to threaten and to bully.

All of us need the inspiration of a Nelson Mandela and other exemplary leaders of his calibre, to not give up on the dream, to keep working hard at turning it into reality and to hold those in power accountable day in and day out. What we witnessed from the state on March 20 proved that what is missing is not resources, a Cabinet reshuffle, a different history but the intention and commitment to follow through on that intention. We are capable. The country of Madiba’s dreams is still possible.

* Hatang is CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Show Comments ()
Latest issue
Latest issue
All the news from City Press in PDF form.
Read now
Voting Booth
Stats SA's recent consumer price index data this week indicated the rise in food prices was the largest in 14 years. Economists say continued load shedding also adds to the rise in the cost of food production. How are you feeding your family during this tough time?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
I have a food garden
7% - 58 votes
I rely on sales
22% - 181 votes
I buy necessities
71% - 592 votes