Nelson Mandela Foundation

NMAL16 Obama 6 Nelson Mandela Foundation

For over a decade during his tenure as a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF), the late Ahmed Kathrada pushed the NMF to host the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture at a stadium. It was his dream that the lecture should reach as many people as possible.

In the centenary year of Madiba’s birth, we were able to fulfil this dream when 15 000 South Africans, more than 6 500 of them young people, from all walks of life came together to listen to former US President Barack Obama and to celebrate the Mandela legacy. Millions more across the globe watched or listened to the lecture, or used social media to follow it.

Opinions were divided over the choice of speaker. We were asked why we chose a speaker who was not from South Africa or even from the continent, or why we would choose a speaker whose own legacy was contested and who had made controversial decisions during his term.

We were clear that in this centennial year the speaker we chose would have to have had a personal relationship with Madiba and would have to be someone who could relate to the difficult decisions Madiba made during those testing years of his presidency. Importantly, this year’s speaker needed to be someone with the ability to focus on building a values-based society and offering a vision of the future.

The lecture was a major success and President Obama’s words reverberated throughout the world. He admonished those who continually seek a way to power by dividing people and reminded his audience that Madiba’s choices were made through democratic processes and with deep introspection and dialogue at the forefront. These choices were built on global humanitarian ideals. President Obama spoke passionately on how historical revisionism and critiques of the choices made should be contextualised in a polarised world. Particularly poignant were these words:

“Should we see that wave of hope that we felt with Madiba’s release from prison, from the Berlin Wall coming down – should we see that hope that we had as naive and misguided? Should we understand the last 25 years of global integration as nothing more than a detour from the previous inevitable cycle of history – where might makes right, and politics is a hostile competition between tribes and races and religions, and nations compete in a zero-sum game, constantly teetering on the edge of conflict until full-blown war breaks out? Is that what we think?

“Let me tell you what I believe. I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision. I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and King and Abraham Lincoln. I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multiracial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal, and they’re endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. And I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible and that it can achieve more peace and more cooperation in pursuit of a common good. That’s what I believe.”

Obama’s call was an important one to be made in South Africa where the spectre of “tribal identity” based on race, gender, political party, class or myriad other identities has become a tool to divide rather than to look for a common humanity.

While President Obama made these points, he also recognised that we need to continue questioning the structures of power that underpin the global and national systems. As South Africans, we must continually think through what real transformation means, without it being determined by the whims of political actors or elites.

Obama shared the stage with President Cyril Ramaphosa and South African businessman Patrice Motsepe, whose Motsepe Foundation was a partner in hosting the lecture. The contradictions posed by the presence of the powerful individuals on stage were not lost on us at the NMF as we navigated the complex terrain of both speaking truth to power and working with those with the power to transform.  

The NMF is clear that, aside from the fundamental and transformative challenges existing on a macro level, it is also actions on micro level that lay the foundations for the South Africa we want to build.

Over the past two months, we have supported the grassroots Land Access Movement of South Africa, documentary makers Plexus Films, the Alliance for Rural Democracy and rural community movement Ntinga Ntaba kaNdoda with community workshops and dialogues preceding a series of constitutional review committee meetings unfolding across the country. We believe the voice of those on the ground must be elevated and listened to as we build a viable democracy.

Similarly, we have witnessed how individual South Africans have lived the Mandela legacy for decades and made every day a “Mandela Day”. As we continued our work in policy and advocacy in early childhood development (ECD), we have been able to engage with two outstanding South Africans. Abram Kgari runs the Oratile Early Childhood Development Centre in Diepsloot, Johannesburg, and Dikeledi Ramathoka runs the Lesedi la Kganya Educare Centre, also in Johannesburg. The two ECD practitioners are community-based activists.

Abram started the Oratile centre because he wanted to make a difference in the lives of children. He converted his “RDP” house into an ECD centre at his own cost. Dikeledi also began her centre after watching young children wandering around her township with little stimulation. These two dedicated practitioners are just a few of the many who work in the difficult ECD space. We are grateful and inspired by them and the millions of other South Africans who dedicate their lives to their fellow man.

As the centenary of Mandela’s birth starts drawing to a close, we reflect on what we have accomplished so far this year. To quote Madiba:

“As we take stock of our accomplishments and shortcomings, we should not, by the slightest of chance, lose sight of our once-ambitious dream for education, total economic participation, democracy and freedom for all.”

As we move on, let us harness our energy and put it into sustainable action so that we can work towards the new freedom that all South Africans should enjoy.