Why does the Nelson Mandela Foundation fight in the Equality Court to have displays of the apartheid national flag declared to be a form of hate speech? Why do we participate in celebrity climbs of Mount Kilimanjaro for charity? Why do we facilitate corporate sponsorship of infrastructure development for early childhood development centres? Why did we host 15 000 people at the Wanderers last year to listen to former President Barack Obama give a lecture?
We listen carefully to critique of our work. We hear the objections about court action which ‘distracts us from the real issues’, the discomfort with celebrity and its propensity for do-gooding, the impatience with events and big platforms. We have doubts. In ways that our critics seem not to have. In ways that Madiba certainly had as he navigated complex realities, intractable problems, and resilient structures of power, privilege and wealth accumulation.
So, why do we do what we do? Simple answers to questions like this, of course, invite deconstruction. But for the Foundation there is a simple answer which inspires action while creating the yardstick for evaluation: we do what we do to harness energy for the work of dismantling the very same resilient structures which confronted Madiba. And in the case of the apartheid national flag we are not aiming at AfriForum, or at individuals who cause pain and hurt. We are aiming at the resilient and intersecting structures of power, privilege and wealth accumulation of which displays of the apartheid flag are a manifestation. And we do so with a mandate from our Board of Trustees to work against racism in all its forms and to promote effective ways of reckoning with South Africa’s oppressive pasts
As most will know, last year the Nelson Mandela Foundation responded to continuing offensive displays of the apartheid flag by applying to the Equality Court to have such displays declared to be a form of hate speech. AfriForum opposed our application. On Wednesday 21 August we won a seminal judgment in the Court. Almost immediately AfriForum used social media to display the flag in defiance of that judgment. Our legal team (led by Advocate Ngcukaitobi) believes this to be in contempt of court and so we have begun proceedings against AfriForum.
Representatives and supporters of AfriForum have claimed that Madiba would not have approved of the course we have followed in this matter. Some have invoked the 1995 rugby world cup final when Madiba stood alongside rugby boss Louis Luyt and wore the Springbok emblem. What they choose to forget in this narrative is that two years later Madiba took action against Luyt for the failures of transformation in South African rugby and found himself crossing swords with Luyt in a courtroom. Madiba’s generosity was always aimed at facilitating transformation. And his longer-term objective was always the dismantling of oppressive structures and systems.
So, what have we achieved? We have created a legal basis on which people who harass and cause harm to fellow-South Africans by displaying the apartheid flag can be held accountable. We have surfaced forms of racism which swirl in the depths of our society. We have given notice that for the Foundation the spurning of generosity must have consequences. We have established in law that hate speech is not limited to expression using words – it can also take the form of symbols, images and gestures. And we have tested ideas and gathered experience which will be woven into our Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity (AFRE) programme in the continuing search for more effective ways of combatting racism and the white supremacy which sustains it.