The season of the ‘imbongi’, our traditional praise singers, is upon us. July 18th is the 94th birthday of our founding father, and South Africans and foreign admirers alike will take 67 minutes on that day to commit to a good cause – each minute representing a year Nelson Mandela spent in active politics. But, while we commemorate the birthday of Madiba, his legacy has not survived as it should. Something is broken in our beautiful land.
Our education system is deepening social inequality instead of healing it. The overwhelming majority of young people in townships sit in overcrowded classrooms, if they are at school at all. They have to make do without textbooks, laboratories, libraries, sports facilities or even properly qualified teachers. Generations of learners will leave school after 12 years with next to no skills, no job prospects, and little chance for the human dignity associated with a decent income.
As the student organisation, Equal Education, stated it at their recent congress: “The [education] system is not one promised by the Constitution, which is a society based on human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms. The system is not living up to the Freedom Charter, which says that education must ‘improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person’.”
Congress of South African Trade Unions’ Zwelenzima Vavi, recently brought up the income inequality that has increased across the board, citing the Gini coefficient, which stood at 0.64 in 1995 and had jumped to 0.68 in 2008; adding that there has been a reverse redistribution from the poor to the rich, which is exacerbated by the loss of over a million jobs since the economic crisis of 2008. According to a recent official government survey, two-thirds of South Africans are living on less than R2 500 per month – many of whom are supporting not only their immediate families, but their extended ones as well.
And that’s not even mentioning the millions of unemployed in the country.
Meanwhile, the rich get richer, and the country is assaulted by an epidemic of corruption. And all of this has happened on our watch.
So what is going to happen this Mandela Day? Government ministers will trade their fancy suits for overalls, a handy photo-op. They will arrive in luxury vehicles, escorted by the blue light brigade, to help paint a school, hand out soccer kits and break some bread with the everyone. For 67 minutes, corporate executives will cut ribbons, lecture employees about being one big happy family, and put some ticks on their corporate social responsibility spreadsheets. (Perhaps they will mutter a little about the time they sacrificed when they could have been making profits).
But then what?
Mandela Day has come to remind me of the ancient Roman festival on winter solstice, where slaves and masters traded places for a day – the masters serving their slaves during the feast. But that’s all.
Nelson Mandela, on the other hand, spent 27 years in jail for our freedom – that’s 14 191 200 minutes in a prison cell. While it made a massive difference, it still was not enough to ensure freedom for those that continue to suffer in the aftermath of apartheid.
So how will 67 minutes find solutions to the structural causes of poverty, hunger and joblessness that we face?
I reflect on that groundbreaking day, 2 February 1990, when F.W. de Klerk lifted a 30-year ban on the African National Congress and all banned organisations and announced that Nelson Mandela would be released from prison. It marked the beginning of irreversible change. We knew that something had turned, and would have to keep turning. The political stalemate had been dragging us deeper into a scorched earth of a racial civil war.
The timing, however, caught us by surprise. We flooded the streets and euphoria enveloped the country and the world. On Cape Town’s Grand Parade on the day of his release, Mandela began to speak and a hushed silence fell over the square. The day was pregnant with optimism and national pride. Mandela not only freed us from Apartheid; he freed us, the world’s poor, oppressed and marginalised, from the shackles of poverty, prejudice, religious and gender intolerance.
I remember his first public words as they rang out quietly: “I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands. . .”
How many of those in power still believe in this commitment? Certainly there are leaders who work tirelessly towards this dream, but the overwhelming majority has abandoned this vision. Undoubtedly there are gains that have taken us away from the violence of apartheid and the spectre of racism that no-one wants to return to. But there are also damning signs of our moral and political decline. I see the rise of demagoguery. I see leaders who want to make the constitution-making process the scapegoat of our failures today.
The Constitution is clear that we must promote social equity among our people – the right to quality education, health, welfare and basic services. The Bill of Rights talks about changing society as a whole and not making selected groups within the political elite wealthy or recipients of black economic empowerment (BEE) largesse.
So what needs to be done?
We need to act against the rising tide of political arrogance and corruption wracking our country and destroying its social fabric. The abuse of state resources is theft from the poor. It is a cancer that corrupts state officials, undermines our democracy and weakens the faith and trust of our people in their public institutions. We need a zero-tolerance approach to this abuse of power and to tackle corruption wherever it raises its head – in public or private sectors and even in civil society.
Mandela stood for human dignity, social justice and a world free from want and hunger. He demanded that leaders across government, the corporate and civil society serve the interests of the people instead of themselves. He represented the epitome of humility, the antithesis of the political arrogance we see across the world.
So if we want to celebrate Mandela, let us stop erecting more plaques, more statues, more streets named after him or honorary doctorates from distinguished universities.
Let us return to the simple honest values of service to the people. Let us return to the painstaking organising we did at the coalface, which created the tsunami of mass struggles that allowed an iconic Mandela to lead us to freedom.
That is the only viable strategy to ensure accountability and transparency and a democracy that is based on social justice and socially inclusive growth.
I am exhausted by the rhetoric, the endless stream of resolutions and PowerPoint presentations that analyse our dilemma and offer some ‘noble’ solution that can be parachuted into our communities. What we need is honesty.
Do the job we pay you for. If you are a teacher, be in the classroom on time, be prepared for your lessons and invest in building a generation of youth that can take advantage of the opportunity of democracy. If you are a state official, do the job we pay you for in issuing ID documents, policing or running our public functions without selling public tenders or charging citizens a ‘private tax.’
If you are a government minister, drop the ‘blue lights’, behave like a servant of the people and live a lifestyle at your own expense and not that of the public taxpayer. You have no divine right to rule us.
If you are a corporate executive, consider the proposition that a business flourishes in the long term in an ecosystem of social stability in which quality education, health and safety are a reality for all citizens. Therefore mainstream your social responsibility projects, because tackling poverty and creating sustainable jobs and livelihoods are in the interest of your business.
The overarching objective of Mandela Day is to inspire individuals to take action to help change the world for the better, and in doing so build a global movement for good.
Ultimately, it seeks to empower communities everywhere. Take action; inspire change; make every day a Mandela Day. That is what I will endeavour to do every day of my remaining life. To support the next generation reclaim their rightful heritage to our world.
My generation has failed you, the people we fought for. I apologise for that indictment. I urge you, the next generation of South Africans, to cast your own vision, fashion your own strategy and carve your own path towards the world you want. Let no-one strangle your voice and your future.
Because, as the Native American proverb says, my generation has not inherited the world from our ancestors. We borrowed it from you, our children.
- Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, former minister in the Mandela Government and chair of GAIN, a global foundation fighting malnutrition in the world. Also refer to www.jaynaidoo.org.