Let's find ways to dream freedom anew

Victoria J. Collis-Buthelezi: South African programme director, Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity

More than two decades after the advent of democracy in South Africa, the legacy of former president Nelson Mandela sits at the heart of debates about the country’s progress, or lack thereof.

What we know now is that the negotiated settlement that preceded elections averted countrywide civil war and brought about the vote, and as such, political equality for all.

It made citizenship no longer dependent on one’s race and South Africa became nicknamed the “rainbow nation”.

However, given that the country is one of the world’s most economically unequal societies, in which race and poverty are inextricably linked, the rainbow idyll is no longer enough.

It is not coincidental that terms such as “radical economic transformation” or “white monopoly capital” have gained traction.

As much as these formed part of the public relations wizardry of the now defunct Bell Pottinger, they stuck because some aspects rang true.

They made sense in the face of resilient white privilege, high unemployment and ever more visible incidents of racism.

The existence of widespread corruption within our political and state tendering system does not negate the historical reality of the black majority’s dispossession of material wealth and land, and access to basic services, education and wealth.

Thanks to the work of collectives such as Open Secrets – a non-profit body that aims to promote private sector accountability for economic crime and related human rights violations in southern Africa – we are learning more and more about the looting of the apartheid state and the complicity of many in the international community.

In the recently published book Dare Not Linger – a memoir chronicling Mandela’s presidential years which was begun by Madiba and completed by Mandla Langa – it is stated that Mandela, as commander-in-chief, believed that bringing people together across racial lines was one of the priorities of his tenure.

Mandela was, after all, the same man who said in 1964: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.

"It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, my lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

This is not to say that this was Mandela’s only agenda; he also faced an economy on the brink of collapse and an international investor community that seemed uncertain of the South African “miracle”.

Two hundred years ago, the Haitian revolutionary hero Toussaint L’Ouverture angered many of his followers, who felt he was too conciliatory to white former slaveholders.

I say this to make plain that Mandela’s choices were not exceptional – in the wake of liberation struggles revolutionary leaders have to make difficult choices.

Their choices warrant our scepticism, review and critique because these go on to shape the limits and possibilities of our freedom as well as our continued struggle to achieve it.

Mandela was, perhaps like L’Ouverture, South Africa’s “opening” to freedom, but not the final destination.

He was not perfect, no messiah, but a man with a vision and the short-sightedness of his time. His questions were not our own.

White supremacy and anti-black sentiment are resurgent globally; South Africa is not exempt. Racist vitriol continues to circulate.

Places of learning, work and pleasure that were once “vir gebruik deur blankes” or “for use by white persons” may allow black people entrance now, but they remain psychically racist and untransformed.

The vote has been won and remains something to cherish, but it did not bring with it land redistribution or economic stability.

The debate to be had today should not be merely about what Mandela and the class of 1994 did or did not do.

We must continue to make them account for our present, but we must also dream new dreams of freedom.

Today’s questions are not theirs, so our answers will not always align.

The questions and debate of our time may be: What does it mean to extend political equality to the sphere of the cultural and the economic?

How do we dismantle the legacy of racially disparate outcomes in our lifetime?

What does such an undoing look like when we actively work towards racial equity, while also recognising that gender-based and many other inequalities are not ancillary to this work, but central to the making of a fair South Africa?

The recently launched Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity (AFRE) is a Nelson Mandela Foundation initiative designed to foster spaces in which people can dream freedom anew.

Mandela’s old house in 13th Avenue, Houghton in Johannesburg is being transformed into an AFRE facility, designed to become such a space.

The first cohort of 11 South African fellows are people who dream of remaking freedom.

They are not cast in Mandela’s image.

They are truth seekers and change makers fighting for the South Africa we need today.

Collis-Buthelezi is the South African programme director of the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity and holds a joint senior researchership at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER) and the Public Affairs Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

This piece appeared first in City Press.