Correctly, we were all urged to celebrate former President Nelson Mandela's 91st birthday last Saturday by devoting sixty-seven minutes of our time to help others. If Mandela were to use us as a mirror, would he see himself in us?
Days before Saturday, radio stations frantically recorded voices of "important people" in our society telling us how they would spend their sixty-seven minutes in response to Mandela's call. It was as though they all went to the same advisor; the story was so similar: visiting old age homes, painting buildings, cleaning this or cleaning that!
Indeed, Mandela Day gave these "important people" a rare opportunity to take pictures and to be captured by TV cameras looking good. At a stroke, they appeared like philanthropic beings who care for those in need. Yet if Mandela were to use them as a mirror, he would hardly see himself in most of these "important people"
A few weeks ago, we read in newspapers about billions of taxpayers' money that went into the pockets of public servants who stealthily own companies that benefited from government tenders. But the "important people" who looked nice on Mandela Day issued no single statement of condemnation.
In most communities, municipal services have almost collapsed, but the mayors and councillors were also part of the "important people" who devoted sixty-seven minutes of their time last Saturday. Cases of bread-producers fixing prices against the poor are indeed among those we are too familiar with, yet such amoral entrepreneurs did not hesitate to wish Mandela well.
We again find ourselves confronted with the very troubling question: If Mandela were to use us as a mirror, would he see himself in us? Indeed, we need not have spent twenty-seven years in jail to answer this soul-searching question. We only need to be South African, and occupy offices in the public or private sphere. Anyone who pursues selfish interests without regard for the good of society has wasted his or her sixty-seven minutes by posing before TV cameras two days ago.
In a society where corruption is rife, Mandela has no meaning! In a society where leaders have no moral integrity, Mandela means nothing! In a society where the love of material wealth takes precedence over social progress, the celebration of Mandela is nothing more than good or bad performance in a theatre. Are these ills not ubiquitous in South Africa today?
As we search for honest answers, we ought to do so in the consciousness of the errors committed by societies elsewhere. Most post-independent African states recovered very late from the excitement induced by the heroism of those who politically liberated them. While poor people ululate, those in positions of power were busy lining their pockets and corrupting every public and private institution.
It is a common tactic of those in power to make the poor endlessly salute struggle heroes so that the toiling masses do not come to terms with their reality; that their conditions have not changed! Further, it serves the interest of the powerful for the poor to wallow in the illusion that they have tangibly benefitted from the heroism of the struggle. Thus has President Barrack Obama, when addressing the Ghanaian Parliament on 11th July, cautioned:
Only this time, we've learned that it will not be giants like Nkrumah and Kenyatta who will determine Africa's future. Instead, it will be you – the men and women in Ghana's parliament - the people you represent. It will be the young people brimming with talent and energy and hope who can claim the future that so many in previous generations never realized.
Obama is right; Nkrumah, Kenyatta and Mandela have done their part – sounding their names, however loud, will not eradicate corruption in Ghana, Kenya or South Africa. If Obama knew about a group of parliamentarians in our country, infamously known as the Travelgate, who defrauded the taxpayer with impunity, he probably would have paused before advising that parliamentarians are our hope.
Do as I say, not as I do
When we recover from the collective excitement generated by Mandela Day, and after our "important people" have stopped posing in front of TV cameras, we should ask critical questions about South Africa today and tomorrow. When some leader in our society urges us to follow in Mandela's footsteps, we must ask if he or she is a reflection of the values embodied by Madiba. In so doing, we would be ensuring that nobody hides behind Mandela to mask their own leadership deficiencies.
But there is something a little consoling about these deficient leaders who pose in front of cameras: they are a passing phase! This means that the people we should think of when we celebrate Mandela Day are the youth, for they are the future of this country. We only need to pray that the deficient leaders do not sink our society beyond rescue.
Those who have vision for our country cannot but share the hope Obama has in “young people who are speaking up against patronage, and participating in the political process.” Of course, we are not blessed with plenty such young people today, who participate in the political process. They are there but hugely intimidated by those who survive by public insults and patronage.
But society is not static; there will come a time when the champions of insults will be society's best examples of what not to be. In time, the young men and women who are currently studying at our universities will take over the running of our society. Armed with education, and hopefully with moral consciousness, they will repulse that which is socially unpalatable.
These young people can today see through the spectacle of "important people" posing to be captured by TV cameras in the name of our great statesman, Mandela. When this period of hope finally rises on the horizon, Obama's hope will be turned into reality, and perhaps Mandela will begin to have a deeper meaning beyond TV cameras. Only then shall we earnestly answer the question: If Mandela were to use us as a mirror, would he see himself in us?
Indeed, there are many who will read and be offended by the idealism of this column. To such readers, the humble words of Sigmund Freud are worth borrowing: "I am prepared to moderate my zeal and admit the possibility that I too am chasing an illusion."
Mashele is Head of Crime, Justice and Politics Programme at the Institute for Security Studies. He writes in his personal capacity.
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