Nelson Mandela Foundation

As 2024 just gets started, I find myself reflecting on what feels like two momentous things – the International Court of Justice (ICJ) rulings last week and the fact that South Africa is just a few months away from a general election. At this moment, I am reminded of words from Antonio Gramsci: "The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear."

The Foundation welcomed the ICJ’s decisive analysis of what is happening in Gaza and its directives to Israel designed to stop a genocide of the Palestinian people living there. Just for a moment, one’s faith in international law felt restored and one experienced the flickering of a belief that a lasting peace can be made in this tortured region of the world. And yet, as with South Africa’s constitutional, legal and legislative frames, for international law to become a lived reality for the people it is designed to serve and to protect, there needs to be implementation by the relevant instruments of power.

It is imperative now that the United States and all the other countries which are enabling the horror unfolding in Gaza be persuaded to bring pressure to bear on Israel. Without that pressure, it is hard to imagine any changes to the strategies and tactics of the Israeli Defence Force.

It is also important that in dealing with the immediate crisis, the international community does not lose sight of the underlying causes of the conflict. Arguably, the form of settler colonialism which has been allowed to develop (if not actively fostered) in the region over generations, and the ways in which the Oslo Peace Accords (accords which were applauded by Nelson Mandela in the 1990s) have been deliberately undermined, has constituted a continuing crime against humanity making eruptions of deadly violence almost unavoidable. The war, which has unfolded since 7 October 2023, is yet another manifestation of a deep-rooted structural crime. It is time for a new world to be born.


Turning to South Africa, it is deep-rooted structural dynamics that explain our continuing failure to make a progressive Constitution a lived reality for the vast majority of the people who call South Africa home. And this failure, in turn, explains the alienation of so many from the formal processes of democracy. Processes like elections. Unless we reckon with this alienation and address the structural dynamics which prevent democracy from delivering on the terms of the social contract underpinning it, society will continue to be an accumulation of kindling, just needing a spark for the flames of rage to erupt. A time of ‘morbid symptoms’ is upon us.

It is imperative, now, that citizens look to use the vote as one of many instruments for addressing structural problems. We need citizens to register as voters. We need to tell the political parties what policies are needed, what electoral reforms are demanded, what kinds of candidates will be acceptable, and what forms of accountability are needed when the election is over. We must make it clear to the political elites that we will not vote for parties which cannot provide reassurance on these things, which have poor (or no) track records, and which are unable to persuade us that they will not join in feeding at the trough of corruption (if they are not already doing so). And we must determine, no matter who wins, to keep holding politicians accountable.


In many ways, what is happening in South Africa and in Palestine-Israel illuminate what feel to be the two critical questions facing humanity today: how to take the decisive immediate action required to avert catastrophe; and how to effect the long-term structural change that will enable just and sustainable societies to grow? If answers cannot be found, then, I fear, any “new world” will be still-born.