The passing away of Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was a devastating blow for us at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. She was a light to all of us and a beacon of hope to the most marginalised.
Having known Mama Winnie for many years, my memories of her are etched in my being. However, unlike many South Africans who remember her as a “lioness” and recall her defiance and fighting spirit, with her fist raised above her head, I remember her for the caring arm she wrapped around the most vulnerable.
I remember her being completely distraught when University of Johannesburg student Palesa Madiba went missing in 2013. Unlike those who offer concern from afar, she visited the Madibas’ family home and regularly called me and others, looking for updates in the hope that Palesa would receive the justice she deserved. She did this without looking for accolades or the limelight, but because she was dedicated to those who were suffering.
Mama Winnie’s unflinching heroism and commitment to the most vulnerable should forever guide us as a nation. She fought for the type of transformation where justice and equality are central, and never faltered in her dedication to the continued Struggle.
With her passing away, we, as South Africans, must question whether we are doing enough to realise the freedom and justice that Mama Winnie fought for. The recent tragic death of five-year-old Lumka Mkhethwa after falling into a pit latrine, as well as that of Michael Komape, in similar circumstances in 2014, paint a bleak picture in this regard.
While the government has a fundamental role in service delivery and realising a more just and free South Africa, we, too, as citizens have to contribute and hold both the state and our fellow citizens to account. We must collectively question our responses to the murder of Taxify driver Siyabonga Ngcobo, who was found dead in the boot of a burnt car at the beginning of March, and to the invasion of privacy and disregard of dignity at Topbet gambling franchise, where female staff were subjected to humiliating physical strip-searches to determine if they were menstruating.
Such examples must force us to reflect on where we are as a country and we must translate this introspection into action, as opposed to despair. At the Nelson Mandela Foundation, we have done this by using our platforms and social and economic capital to promote diverse voices, especially those on the margins of society.
As we build on our work in the areas of poverty and inequality, two critical pillars of our programme are that of land justice and early childhood development (ECD). In our engagements, we have met with inspiring and remarkable South Africans.
We are inspired by the work of Atlantic Fellowship for Racial Equity Fellow Stha Yeni, who is working tirelessly to ensure that marginalised voices of those living in rural areas, especially women, are elevated in discussions of land justice and transformation.
We hope that in our work on land justice we can, over the short term and with the assistance of those like Stha, provide input to the parliamentary Constitutional Review Committee and promote the voices of those most affected. Often, the opinions of the privileged dwarf those of the poor, and we want to be mindful of this and ensure that those on the margins are heard.
At the same time, we are aware that a difficult history and policy can have a negative impact. In conversations with community members, we have noted how many informal ECD centres are unable to formally register and receive the R15-per-child subsidy from the government that “formal” ECD centres are entitled to.
In some instances, these informal centres do receive nutrition grants from the government, but these only amount to R3 a day per child, which has to cover two meals.
Furthermore, we see how intersectional issues are. A history of land dispossession and dislocation has resulted in many informal ECD centres facing a stumbling block to become registered, as they lack title deeds.
Liza Rossi, founder and executive director of the Ekukhanyeni Relief Project, has explained to us that without a title deed, it is impossible for centres to obtain the necessary certificates to get government funding. In her experience and that of many others, an ECD centre cannot qualify for funding without a title deed even if all structural requirements are met.
It is through dialogue that we can find solutions to these issues to make sure that centres meet the requirements to support those in need and protect those they care for.
Despite these barriers, we have also witnessed the efforts of remarkable people such as Abram Kgari, executive director of Diepsloot Oratile ECD Centre, who used his financial payout when he got retrenched to turn his RDP home into an ECD centre, which now caters for 110 children. He is also the chairperson of the Diepsloot ECD Forum, comprising 136 ECD centres. People like Abram keep South Africa going and are living the legacy.
As we pay tribute to all those who died in Sharpeville and to the memory of Mama Winnie, and in recognition of Human Rights Month, we must remember that efforts in the pursuit of justice and freedom are a continuation of the Struggle of many before us who used their minds and bodies to actively strive for a world in which all citizens can live lives of their choosing in which they are able to realise their full potential.
It is our duty to build a human rights culture that supports us all, and especially women and children, who are most vulnerable to abuse. If we all dedicate ourselves in the manner of Mama Winnie, we will find true freedom for all.