Nelson Mandela Foundation

The last year and a half of living with the coronavirus has again reminded us of the living conditions of the great majority of our people. Last year, I and some of my colleagues travelled over 25 000 kilometres on our country's roads, some good some terrible, reaching those who were in desperate need of food relief. During these trips, we encountered those who reminded us of the promissory note they were holding onto, namely the provisions of our Constitution which include the right to live with dignity. This promissory note is still to be cashed in. 

As we were travelling, one was troubled by the vast number of our citizens and others who live in our country who are still to fully experience what our forebears put down in the preamble of our Constitution, when they indicated that the Constitution aims to: heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights; improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person. 

The gaping wounds that need healing manifest most starkly through what Thomas Piketty called racialised inequality during the delivery of his Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in 2015. And it is our woundedness which manifested recently in Phoenix and surrounding areas. Most acutely through what we have come to normalise: the violation or death of Black Africans. The latter is accepted as routine, especially in contexts of so-called black on black violence, as perpetuated by the apartheid regime. We begin to feel, and to express, horror when the violence crosses the old apartheid-era racial divides. This, in my view, is an indication of the extent to which South Africans continue to internalise the racism of apartheid and colonialism. So, we have to do everything possible to reduce the high levels of crime that lead to the unnecessary loss of life of all people living in South Africa. But, as importantly, we have to address the woundedness and free ourselves of the shackles of the past.

This brings us to a big question which we simply have to confront at some point: do these apartheid-era racial classifications help with the healing project as outlined in the Constitution? Do we still need race-based redress or have we reached a point where we can do without such? What will it take to get our nation to the point of claiming that we have "healed the divisions of the past." In other words, how will we measure success in this regard?

During our travels in these last eighteen months, we are always confronted with the second big issue from the same promissory note - our Constitution - which states that we have to improve the living conditions of our people and free their potential. We were reminded searingly of this provision when we met two orphaned boys in KaHhoyi. At the time of meeting them, they were very shy and, one could almost argue, thought little of themselves. When asked what their top asks would be, they said food and shelter. 

We were able to fulfil the first priority request of food and have consistently given them food since then. It took us just over a year to fulfil their second request for shelter. We made a promise and we couldn't rest without fulfilling it. We reminded ourselves that in Setswana we would say tsholofetso ga e tlhabise ditlhong. A simple translation is: a promise made must be a promise fulfilled. Put differently, a promise made is a debt unpaid. We have a lot of debt to pay in relation to the preamble of our Constitution and to future generations. 

When we handed over the house to the two orphaned boys, we were happy to fulfil that promise which they patiently waited for, from a year ago. On our return recently with Mr Collen Mashawana and the Mpumalanga MEC of Human Settlements, MEC Mashilo, the older boy indicated that he didn't believe we would ever return to fulfil the second promise. Our people have had to live with the burden of promises made and never fulfilled. They have lost trust in any institution that comes with promises. 

The upcoming local government elections give us an opportunity to hand over the promissory note to the candidates of the different political parties and hold them accountable for promises made and never fulfilled. The new ones, whether they be new political parties or individual councillors, must be made to understand that they will be held accountable for any promises they make. 

One is reminded of the words of Martin Luther King Jr when he said: "In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir."

These words ring true for South Africa today. It is time for our democracy to deliver on its promises. 

This piece first appeared in City Press