Nelson Mandela Foundation

I write this at the very moment South Africa marks the first anniversary of the initial Covid-19 societal lockdown. How haunting to try and absorb all that has changed since then; to remember all those we have lost; to contemplate the reality that it is not over yet and that although our reserves may be severely depleted, the bigger and longer-term challenges lie ahead. It is hard to comprehend a year which has felt like three and which has been so full of ever-shifting contexts. As so many issues jostle for attention, as the needs of so many demand consideration and sap one’s energy, it is hard to maintain focus. And harder still to build a rhythm, a pattern, a productive routine.

For the Foundation, of course, there has been the added and singular testing of an internal crisis which has preoccupied us for the best part of the last three months. Let me not underplay what our beloved institution has been through, nor the damage which has been done to individuals, relationships and networks. The anonymous allegations struck at the very heart of what we are about – an institution built on integrity and public trust. That an independent investigation has exonerated our Chief Operating Officer Limpho Monyamane and myself of any impropriety or wrongdoing gives us the cornerstone for what has to be a thorough and painstaking rebuilding of trust. For us it is essential that we also dig deep in ensuring that we learn the lessons this unprecedented crisis offers us. We know enough from our own dialogue and leadership development work to understand that this kind of learning doesn’t come cheaply. So, it is too early even to outline what we have learned. But we are committed to ensuring that when we look back in a year’s time we will have worked out how we need to do differently and will have begun doing so.

We are grateful to so many for the support they have provided in what has been a harrowing time. Our Board of Trustees stepped up magnificently and steered the ship with what felt like a dogged elegance. Our staff carried unspeakable emotional loads but ensured that the work continued to be done with quiet determination. For our friends, institutional partners, and beneficiary communities who were unwavering in their belief and in their demonstration of support, there are no words to express what that has meant to us. We are forever grateful to the legal team of advocates Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, Ben Winks and Rupert Candy, who gave up many hours to direct our anxiety and ensure that we believed in the process even at a time when it felt like it was going on for too long. 

My mother reminded me that if you have fought hard to build it, you must be patient to wait for the process to unfold and even more patient as you rebuild yourself to something new and better. In many ways this kept us going through those nights of doubt and fear. Above all, our gratitude goes to our families who cried with us when the world retired to rest. Re leboga go menagane. We have understanding for those who stepped away or held back while waiting for the investigation to be concluded, and we look forward to engaging again and co-creating new partnerships and forms of collaboration. I have no doubt that the Foundation will get back to where it wants to be, and where it needs to be. But we have been wounded. And as they say, sometimes storms and avalanches leave corpses in their wake. They attack under the cover of bad weather and darkness, like ghosts. The scars will always be there. And we have lost things that may never be recovered. Like a certain joyful innocence, something so hard to find and to nurture in institutional spaces. In many ways, what happened at the Foundation is a demonstration of our woundedness as people and the need to inflict maximum pain and humiliation to the one you consider an enemy.

I always thought I needed time out, away from work and more time spent in the garden. As they say, be careful what you wish for. Time was given to me in the form of voluntary leave of absence. With nothing to do, but fill your days with nothing but time with hope that the silence will break and something positive will be born out of this crazy period. I strongly believe that something positive will come out of this period.

Whether we like it or not the year ahead for the Foundation will be very much about rebuilding, reflecting, restoring and reimagining. There will need to be a quality of inwardness which will be difficult to maintain given the contingencies of a world still being battered by Covid-19 and a country confronted by multiple challenges. The mandate Madiba gave us to work tirelessly for the country of his dreams, and the insistent call of justice to be making a difference in people’s lives, ring insistently in our ears. In this 25th year of our democratic Constitution it is time for us to make breakthroughs in turning it into a lived reality for all who live in our country. It is time to demonstrate that constitutionalism can be a powerful instrument of transformation and redistribution. Patching back together a broken economy as best we can is not going to be enough. We have to find ways of caring for the most vulnerable at the same time as mobilising creative and entrepreneurial energy at all levels of our society. We have to advance far more quickly in rooting out those who continue to wield power for plunder. And we need to ensure that the race for access to vaccines doesn’t become a sorry spectacle of privilege trumping need.

I could go on, of course. The challenges are many. And at least some of them feel insuperable. But the long walk must be walked. And it must be walked with others. May the year ahead be full of solidarity rewarded by breakthroughs, big and small. We can have those breakthroughs if we do the work together, including through a survey we are conducting in order to hear from you, our stakeholders. Come, let’s walk together …