With the infant’s vulnerability of a still fairly newly democratised society, South Africa faces what seems like a mountain of problems and challenges. A sick child indeed. At such times it’s tempting to ask what that beacon of our democratic hope – Nelson Mandela – would have done.
Of course, that will be futile, and no answers will come; we’ll have to figure things out ourselves.
But there is still a role Mandela can play, even from the grave. It’s called his legacy. That body of his hard-won guiding values and principles that we seem to have lost as we stumble from one crisis to the next. Reclaiming his legacy could be an important way, perhaps even the only way, of finding our way out of the current political, economic, social, and moral morass.
Every year in July we commemorate Mandela’s birthday; we dust off the things he stood for and the things he left us. And then we go back to business as usual. Instead, shouldn’t we make every single day a Mandela Day, all year long instead of just one day of the year? Call me a dreamer, but imagine if all of our leaders after Mandela embraced what he stood for and practiced, where would our country, our democracy have been by now?
Democracy is not only a written constitution that allows regular elections where people choose those who will represent us in prescribed institutions, or where justice is housed in a specific system and laws are made in transparent and orderly fashion. Democracy is also freedom, development, stability, economic growth, pride in country and people, dignity, patriotism, service, and many other things. It should be a system and state of people that one would arguably be willing to die for if it were threatened. Right now our democracy is ailing.
Remembering Mandela’s famous words at his treason trial, I know of two historical figures who were willing to die serving the people they loved: the one was said to be Jesus, the other Mandela, not that I wish to liken one to the other. But perhaps we at least owe him this much – reclaiming his legacy, his values and principles. It could be a significant means of reigniting a spirit of patriotism and service in us all – citizens and civil society, government and political parties, labour and business, intellectuals and educators, jurists and journalists, and everyone else.
Yes, Mandela wasn’t a saint. He had flaws and sometimes made mistakes like everyone. And then there are those who accuse him of having been a sellout. Would they have done better? Do they even know what sellout means, namely betraying one’s core values for money? The way of a Judas Iscariot for 30 pieces of silver? Populist slogans come cheap to those who make them, but they add nothing of substance. They usually just destroy what’s good.
The early-nineties South Africa that Mandela inherited was a place of violence, turmoil, and dramatic change, lest we forget. Difficult decisions had to be made that weren’t always popular with everyone. But guided by his values and principles, his deep understanding of human nature, and his compassion for people – all people – he steered us back from the brink more than once and led us towards a better future. Remember the day Chris Hani died?
Ask those who were there at the 1990s negotiations, those who sat next to or opposite Mandela, what a hard and difficult slog full of breakdowns and compromise it was to arrive without a civil war at the first democratic elections in 1994 and our new constitution in 1996. How many lives, how much blood did that not save, and then there are those who glibly say he should not have negotiated but should rather have gone to war. Have any of them ever seen war up close?
Mandela did his job, and he did it well. Without complaining, without expecting anything in return apart from what was best for his country and his people. But Mandela’s legacy does not have to be accepted uncritically, or without allowing for adjustments to accommodate current conditions and priorities. He didn’t build the road; he just showed us where it is and how best to travel on it.
And when he passed us the baton, we dropped it. Badly. So, how do we get it back? What is that Mandela legacy that can help us recover it? Those values and principles? Where does one start?
Few people have had so much written about them, their beliefs and principles, and what they accomplished. Mandela himself left a remarkable treasure trove of his own books, speeches and other writings behind. Remarkable if one remembers that, in the middle of his life, he had 27 years of it ripped away – freezing him in time, separating him form his country and people, form his family and friends.
And yet, when 27 years later he stepped out of prison, he resumed his remarkable journey as if he had never been away. He later acknowledged to former US President Bill Clinton that for a few moments while walking through the prison to his freedom waiting outside, a rage filled his head over what had been taken from him. And then he realised that the true way to be free, was not to be a victim of his past, but to let go of the bitterness. And by the time he stepped out of the prison into the sun, he was ready to achieve great things for his country.
This is a lesson so many of our current politicians and other leaders can learn. Instead of always playing the blame game, living bitterly in the past, always looking for scapegoats, blaming one another, rather embrace forgiveness and reconciliation, compromise rather than conflict, building rather than breaking, for the greater good of all. That doesn’t mean one should ever forget the past, but rather learn from it. In recent times there have been alarming signs that we are slowly returning to a version of our tragic past. Do we really want our children who were borne free and without prejudice to end up again in the shackles of injustice?
This extends also to the gulf between those who have and the overwhelming many who don’t, to whose improvement and upliftment we pay plenty of lip service, while doing nothing. At the level of the haves, ours has become a society fixated on material possessions and gain – a condition called greed. We’ll steal from the state, capture it, strip it bare, and ignore the plight of the poor and the hungry who depend on that very state. That would never have been the way of Nelson Mandela.
He grew up without much in material riches, but was rich in family, his community, the environment and life’s lessons that he eagerly learnt. In prison he had nothing but his memories and thoughts, and the companionship of a few true comrades. And yet, the value of what he produced out of his experience in prison, cannot be measured in money.
He derived his commitment to serve and his passion for people from his childhood roots that taught him about ubuntu, today a very fashionable word that few people truly seem to understand. However, Mandela understood ubuntu to mean the idea that all people are tied by a oneness and a kind of common destiny, a concept that embraces love for one another, serving, giving and togetherness. With this as his compass, Mandela strove to shape the world around him and make it a better place for all who live in it. That is a quality sadly lacking in today’s South Africa. Today we’d rather follow the superficial affairs of our TV idols or engage in silly Tik Tok escapades and other social media extravagance than learn the value of things like ubuntu. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t embrace the latest technology or engage in the entertaining trends it throws at us, but we shouldn’t do so at the expense of decent values that cost nothing but attitude and perseverance to acquire.
Yes, in later life Mandela earned large sums of money from his books, his income as president, and from the Nobel Prize he shared with FW De Klerk. But that wasn’t important to him personally; he found far greater value in putting his money to work in order to give less privileged children a better life, for example. Part of his legacy that lives on 10 years after his passing, is the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and the sterling work it does.
Also far more important to him than seeing the monetary fruits of his work, was the pleasure he derived from working tirelessly to ensure that all South Africans could have access to clean water.
“That our government has made significant progress in bringing potable water nearer to so many more people than was previously the case, I rate amongst the most important achievements of democracy in our country,” he would later say. This is the spirit and embodiment of service and compassion, not of self-enrichment or of those who simply couldn’t care.
Sadly, despite the notable early improvements when he was alive, between 2002 and 2021 access to potable water declined in six provinces, mostly in the poorer or less industrialised northern provinces, and most of it during the state capture years. That tells a story of its own.
The list of values and principles, and the fruits of his work that Nelson Mandela left us as his legacy is long. It includes things like exemplary leadership, integrity, high moral standards, passion and compassion, justice, reconciliation, forgiveness, freedom, dignity, and striving to be a catalyst for change for the better. He knew that change could be messy and taxing, but he knew also that its pursuit would eventually set one free. One has to start somewhere he would say. Isn’t that what South Africa needs right now?
This is the legacy we all need to live up to, from the politician who wants to be president for personal gain; to the civil servant who doesn’t care about serving; the businessman who steals from the state and the people; the person preparing to throw a petrol bomb at a truck; the policeman who fails to assist a victim of crime; a teacher who goes through the syllabus but imparts no real knowledge or enthusiasm for learning; to the wife beaters and rapists; the ones who shoot the messenger or kill the whistleblowers to hide their crimes; to the departmental head or politician who fraudulently secures a government tender for his relative; to the power station manager tasked with keeping the lights on but couldn’t care; to all of us who make up the great varied spectrum of South Africans.
Perhaps we can start turning our country around by making this Mandela Day the first of 365 Mandela Days of the year ahead, and all the years thereafter. We owe it to Mandela, and to one another.
Stef Terblanche is a Cape Town-based political analyst and journalist.