Nelson Mandela Foundation

On 2 April, we marked the 5th anniversary of the passing of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. As I wrote in my tribute to Mama Winnie over that weekend, the world tends to remember the hardened mother of the nation who always had her fist in the air; the militant who felt the brunt of the brutal Apartheid state, which banished her, took her children away from her, imprisoned her, tortured her, and took away her innocence, but never took away her resolve and resilience.

Madiba and his generation of activists were shielded from this kind of brutality – they did not carry the internal and external wounds she had to bear most of her adult life. Her brutal experience and hard outer shell led her to be perceived as a radical, angry woman, which persists in some quarters to this day.

To remember Mama Winnie is to remember a woman that valiantly led the struggle underground when the old guard of predominantly men had been banned, imprisoned, or exiled.

It is to remember a woman that the Apartheid government tried to physically, psychologically, and even existentially destroy, but who survived. It is also to remember a woman that cared very deeply about the people of this country; a woman who dropped everything when I called her one morning about the plight of a family whose daughter had gone missing. Not only did she visit Palesa Madiba’s family, but she also followed up several times with the then Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa, on the progress in finding the girl. She was heartbroken when I called her to report that Palesa’s remains had been found in a shallow grave.

In Mama Winnie’s story, we see how complex we are as people and the danger of a single story, which, if never challenged, stays in history as the sole narrative. In Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, we see an icon of the measureless power of bondedness.

The 1960s in the United States saw blow after blow to the civil rights movement culminating in the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and a grieving public was trying to make sense of how it could be that their leaders were now gone. After he was killed, there was a week of riots in over 100 cities across the US. Making sense of these senseless moments became critical.

Thinking about what that time must have been like for people in the United States, our collective memory is drawn to the assassination of Chris Hani on 10 April 1993 here in South Africa. The enormity of that pain, the severity of that loss, and how it continues to echo down generations and decades. 

Reflecting on Dr King’s assassination, James Baldwin had the following to say about race relations at the time in the 1972 April publication of Esquire Magazine: “Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.”

The truth is people are like sandcastles standing only by the decency of the other sandcastles around them. When one of them falls, the others are made to crumble. And when high tide comes, no castle is safe. When the right to safe abortions was taken away in the United States, it echoed through South Africa too. 

While we may protect the right to safe abortions, we cannot ignore the ongoing war that is waged in similar ways against women through gender-based violence. When Uganda passed laws that criminalised homosexuality, our staff members and their families were deeply affected, even as many of them are not members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Friends across the world remain worried about the plight of their friends who live in Uganda and other similar states.

We are deeply vulnerable to one another. Earlier this year, we continued to allow xenophobic attacks to take place under the guise of “Operation Dudula”, and this time it was immigrants who were in hospitals and schools that were attacked along with those who work as street traders. I wonder what Mama Winnie would say if she were to witness the things we do to African immigrants in this country.

Without oversimplifying the matter, it is horrifying the harm humans can inflict on each other, let alone the same people who gave South Africans access to food, shelter, and education during our struggle. We were understood correctly as people facing an incredible crisis, as people fighting for their lives. We were supported and helped. We were bonded with. Instead of returning that grace while fellow Africans face their contemporary crises, we scapegoat the responsibilities of our failing leadership onto African immigrants. 

This becomes particularly heart-breaking when you consider how the issue of high unemployment in South Africa would barely be alleviated if there were no immigrants at all. Of course, as I said previously, I am not oversimplifying and not advocating for non-nationals not to get documented in the country they settle in. Instead, I’m asking state institutions to play their part in integrating non-nationals in the most human manner possible and to arrest those who break laws in our country. May we never pass our woundedness to others.

This woundedness and grief that we carry influence us to reproduce the false power of Apartheid in our own names. In response to our vulnerability to each other, and how we keep failing one another, we try to build walls – we attend private schools, protect ourselves with private security, go to private hospitals and live in gated communities. We’re even starting to rely on private electricity in some ways. We imagine to ourselves – “if only I can garner enough power, enough money, enough status and importance, they will never be able to hurt me again.” 

And while we build that false power, we hurt people around us.

Unfortunately for us, a person is only a person because of the mercy and grace of other people. We make each other. That’s the core of the philosophy of Ubuntu.

Last month we were honoured to have hosted a small group from the 2021 cohort of the Mandela Washington Fellowship Alumni. The work of the Mandela Washington Fellowship is so important. The programme takes up to 700 young people from all over sub-Saharan Africa to the US to provide leadership training and provide a platform to discuss the most critical challenges facing the continent today. This type of programme is the kind of social bonding we need to instil in our society. The kind that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela, Charlotte Maxeke, Chris Hani, Fatima Meer, Dulcie September, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X could have only dreamt of.

Bonded people are powerful, even at the grassroots. Consider the Early Childhood Development Forums that, working together with civil society and different organs of state, worked to change policies and unlocked subsidies for deserving Early Childhood Development (ECD) services.

According to legislation, vulnerable ECD services are entitled to a subsidy to support them but this subsidy was only available to registered ECD services. The challenge was that vulnerable ECD services struggle to be registered because they often do not have access to title deeds and other certificates because, amongst other reasons, they do not own the property on which they operate. By rallying together, ECD forums worked with the Department of Social Development, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and other parties to establish a tiered-based registration system that welcomes many more ECD services to be registered and access the subsidy.

What will it take for us to accept that we are irreversibly bonded to each other and that we are profoundly vulnerable to one another? What will it take for us to replenish the miracle that is all of us? What will it take for us to realise how much power we have when we are bonded?

This month, I remember how deeply we can hurt one another. I remember how we hurt Mama Winnie and the assassinations of Dr King and Chris Hani. I also remember how we can build each other up. The lesson I take from this is that the woundedness and fear we all live with can only be healed by the rest of us. It teaches us that struggles of the past are struggles of today and that there is power in bondedness.