"What will happen to South Africa after Mandela goes?”
A group of US journalist friends asked this question while we were travelling in July 2013 through Qunu – the village where Madiba grew up in the Eastern Cape.
In a hall alongside the N2, we attended an emotional vigil for Mandela, who was only just hanging on to life on his 95th birthday.
It was a common question back then from observers, who perhaps simplistically thought that all things good about South Africa were equated with Nelson Mandela.
Although the rot that is so pervasive now had already seeped in, I assured my friends that we would overcome our challenges.
Mandela had faded from the public eye, but his vision and values – and magnanimity – would continue to lift the country and rescue us from sinking into a failed state.
Oh boy, how that has changed.
The buzz phrase for 2017 is state capture, and we’ve shifted from being an idealistic rainbow nation of hope to a cloak-and-dagger nation of crooks.
Two shocking reports emerged this week that are indicative of the state of our nation in the post-Madiba era.
A Progress in International Reading Literacy Study revealed that we came last out of 50 countries surveyed, and that 80% of Grade 4s cannot read for meaning.
Then a report by the Public Protector confirmed media reports of mass corruption, including that hundreds of millions of rands earmarked for schooling for the poor were diverted irregularly – and hurriedly – to cover the cost of Mandela’s funeral in Qunu in December 2013.
The most important funeral of our time is now tainted thanks to ubiquitous graft.
Four years ago today, thousands of people paid tribute to Madiba at the FNB Stadium in Soweto.
Four years ago tomorrow, Madiba lay in state at the Union Buildings for three days. His remains were then transported to Qunu ahead of the funeral on December 15.
The fourth anniversary of Madiba’s death coincides with the ANC’s 54th elective conference in Johannesburg.
Delegates – and, more importantly, the party’s chosen new leadership – would do well to reflect on the 10 days of mourning four years ago, and also to the damage that has been caused to the country thanks to failed leadership.
Whether the ANC is able to self-correct is a guessing game.
But it takes more than leadership, whatever the outcome at Nasrec – or come 2019.
We all need to do our bit to reinvent the country.
This includes a change of attitude from the privileged minority, who need to stop whingeing and rather do something meaningful to eradicate poverty.
If we allow Mandela’s idealistic legacy to be buried along with his physical remains in Qunu, we will become an embittered, intolerant, shrivelled state – one that failed at an inspirational democratic experiment.
In future, when asked what happened after Mandela was laid to rest, let it not be a case of replying, hands up in the air, with another question: What the hell went wrong?