South Africans mourne and celebrate the life of former president Nelson Mandela shortly after his passing. (Stephane de Sakutin, AFP)
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Nelson Mandela is increasingly but wrongly blamed for South Africa’s current government failures, inability to redress continuing apartheid-era inequalities between black and white and rising racial tension.
A particular charge made against Mandela is that he during the negotiations for a democratic South Africa (Codesa) gave away too much to the ancien regime, entrenched white privilege in the public, private and society sectors and because of constitutional compromises made it difficult for subsequent governments to pursue redress.
Firstly, Mandela did not singlehandedly negotiate on behalf of the ANC with the National Party. Although the leader of the ANC, he was part of an ANC collective.
For another, the ANC negotiating collective consisted of a broad front, the Mass Democratic Movement, consisting of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), South African Communist Party (SACP) and civil society organisations that were part of the then disbanded United Democratic Front (UDF), the internal alliance of the resistance against apartheid from the mid-1980s onwards.
Within the ANC, let alone among the different formations within the front, there were strongly held views on constitutional negotiation policies. ANC negotiators had to consult with them and policy positions frequently changed, hardened or watered-down, depending on the demands of the affiliates within the broad ANC front.
Therefore, Mandela, in spite of his political gravitas could not force his personal views down on such diverse groups. For another, Mandela was at heart a consensus-seeking leader, and therefore, sought consensus on almost all contentious negotiations issues within the broader ANC alliance.
With the hand he was dealt by history, Mandela made his contribution within his capabilities, within his context and within his own sphere of influence – which was albeit wide. The rest is our responsibility.
Nevertheless, blaming Mandela for our current faults conveniently shifts introspection from the mistakes that the ANC and leaders subsequently made in power.
Blaming Mandela gives ANC a free pass
Blaming Mandela for all that has gone wrong, is to give others – the ANC leadership, business and civil society – a free pass on what they could have done better, and to ultimately shirk responsibility from what we can do as individuals to make change happen.
Mandela’s historic contribution to the infant democracy was to help cobble together a broad-based consent for the new constitutional democratic order.The Mandela era will indelibly be associated with the early formative years of the new democracy: the new policy-making process, building the new democratic institutions, the legislative overhauls, and the early trust building – so essential – between the different groups who once stared at each other over the barrel of a gun.
Throughout the transition, his leadership helped to maintain the black and poor majority’s trust and loyalty towards the ANC and for the new democratic order, as well as ease the fears of the predominantly white middle class, business and society frightened of black majority rule.
Mandela was South Africa’s first national leader with cross-racial appeal, trusted by large majorities of all ethnic groups. This was crucial in the transition to bring suspicious blacks and whites together across the divides. Mandela’s catch-all embrace is the reason why he contemporarily can be so many things to so many people.
Mandela is no longer an ANC symbol. Mandela is a South African symbol.
He left behind a crucial historical endowment for the future: a leader who groups that fought each other over centuries can jointly own. When forging together divided peoples, like the case in South Africa, it is crucial that there are uniting founding fathers and mothers which all conflicting groups readily embrace.
He also left South Africa a golden standard of leadership we can refer back to, when current and future leadership fails. Mandela espoused leadership that is both ethical and honest, a sense of duty, and governance according to the values of the democratic constitution and in the interests of the widest number of people rather than for personal enrichment or the interests of a small elite, ethnic group or political faction.
Father of constitutional dispensation
He spent almost three decades imprisoned by the apartheid regime for his political activism against the brutal system. His ability to overcome his personal anger, bitterness and resentment to his former oppressors for a life lost, and partner with them to build a new more inclusive, just and equitable society, gives us an example of almost un-human individual compromise for the greater good of society.
Mandela is also the father of our constitutional dispensation. Mandela, extraordinarily unlike most African independence leaders and his ANC peers, firmly believed in democratic constitutional governance, even while he was a liberation fighter.
More recently there has been criticism, wrongly, of provisions of the Constitution that it allegedly undermines redress policies. Yet, the Constitution provides rules within which we govern, exercise power and resolve societal conflicts – and with ample space to pursue redress of historical wrongs.
Mandela’s African nationalism was far more embracing and inclusive and non-racial in outlook than the narrow Africanism, populism and tribalism espoused by many leaders in the ANC today. Mandela, while a fierce opponent of apartheid, was also a fierce opponent of the abuses, corruption and autocratic behaviour exhibited by fellow black leaders. For him, black solidarity stopped when his fellow black leaders behaved undemocratically or were corrupt or uncaring.
Individuals can make a difference
Mandela showed that individuals can make a difference. To follow Mandela’s example, individuals must become more involved in public activities, whether it is sitting on school boards, attending meetings of local municipalities or supporting community organisations and charities with money and time.
Government failure at multiple levels has prompted many citizens to withdraw where possible from using public services. Those who can afford go private, and do not use crumbling state hospitals or schools; they employ private security, instead of relying on the undependable police.
But many citizens who care deeply about South Africa are also now increasingly withdrawing from democratic activities and public life, understandably to focus inwards to personal, immediate family and group interests.
They often argue as individuals there is little they can do to change the rising corruption, indifference and lack of accountability by government and elected officials.
Some white South Africans perceive, because of their “whiteness” they are not wanted in, neither can they influence public life, dominated by a predominantly black ANC government and elected representatives. Yet again, some black South Africans argue as individuals they are powerless, because they are not politically, socially or through family connected to the small ruling elite dominating the governing ANC.
Each person’s contribution matters
As paradoxical as it may sound, with government and elected representatives increasingly failing to perform their public duties, individuals, non-government actors and civil society organisations will have to not only double efforts to hold government and elected representatives accountable; they will also have to fill the public service delivery gap left by government and elected representatives’ failure.
In fact, as government and public representatives disappoint, we urgently need a more social role for individual citizens, to counter such failure. Social solidarity with disadvantaged individuals from whatever colour must underpin the new social role for individual South Africans. Social solidarity across race will not only help break racial barriers and distrust, but it will lead to social stability, and help foster a common South Africanness.
Not only would such a new social activism slowly, but surely help build the South Africa of our dreams, it will also bring individuals new positive meaning and purpose to their own lives.
In practical terms, forming lobby groups to protest for example, anything from potholes to corrupt policemen or laws that does not make sense. Make sure that such groups have members of other race groups also: such issues affect all, no matter race. As individuals we must support organisations on issues that we believe in: if a trade union criticises something you agree with, support it, even if you may not support the trade union per se.
But individuals must shame, shun and protest corrupt government and elected officials in their families, communities and social life, and support honest ones.
Skilled South Africans who want to could help in poorer communities. Volunteering to teach in a poor school, whether it is teaching mathematics, life skills or a sporting skill, will make a difference. Mentoring a poor child in a poor household, “adopting” a child’s education in the township or “adopting” a poor township family, by regularly helping and getting involved in their lives will make a difference.
Or more practically, if possible, give your domestic worker or gardener practical skills – driving, reading and writing or first aid; or paying for the education of their children will change lives for the better. More well-resourced schools can adopt or twin with poor township schools.
Companies could push for more sustainable forms of empowerment, such as giving their ordinary employees shares in their companies, instead of signing deals with politically connected individuals. Companies and groups of companies in a sector must in a different kind of BEE, train artisans – plumbers, boilermakers, electricians en masse.
Companies could, like those in post-Second World War South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, provide their employees with skills, housing and bursaries for their children. But members and supporters of all political parties must become more active in holding their leaders accountable and elect more responsible leaders.
In the absence of responsible government and elected leaders corporate, civil and church leaders must show exemplary leadership, as alternative models of responsible leadership. Mandela would have wanted us to lead within our own sphere of influence.
– William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand. He edited and wrote the introduction the updated edition of Mandela: No Easy Walk to Freedom(Tafelberg, 2013). A shortened version of this article was originally published in Wits University’s research magazine, Curiosity.
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