The very different lives and narratives of two people have been top of mind for me in the last few days. First is Gogo Adelaide Dlamini from Mamelodi, who passed away recently. She has been part of a group of women with whom the Nelson Mandela Foundation has engaged over several years. All of them lost loved ones during the struggles against apartheid and some, like Gogo Dlamini, have been waiting to receive their remains so that they can be laid to rest. I met Gogo Dlamini in 2015 when we were hosting Bill Gates for the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Mamelodi. I visited her on the day she had just been to the ANC’s head office, Luthuli House, to plead with them to help repatriate the remains of her son. She was exhausted on that day as she said she had to take three taxis to get to her destination and had to walk quite a bit, in her old age. She told me she would rest in peace only after the reburial of her son. Now Gogo Dlamini will never receive the remains of the son who died as a freedom fighter in a foreign land.
The other person I have been thinking a lot about is South African billionaire Robert Hersov, who has once again made public pronouncements which raise serious questions about South Africa’s cohesiveness as a nation. Let me at the outset indicate that he makes some good points, but that even these are difficult to engage with because of the speaker’s air of superiority and the arrogance of his delivery. Frequently I found myself torn between agreeing with him and rejecting what he was saying outright, just because of the way he speaks. Sometimes the message and the mode of its delivery become indistinguishable. Robert would do well to understand this!
Let me also say that I have no intention of responding to his insight into who Madiba would have voted for in 2021 if he were still with us.
One key issue he raised which drew my full attention was the need to appoint the right person to the right job. Another is that age-old and closely related question: what has categorising ourselves in the apartheid-determined racial categories achieved thus far? This question which provokes many others. For instance, do we still need such categories if they haven't achieved much for the broader South African society, or can we do better without them? Do they help build a cohesive society or do they fuel the divisions of our nation along race lines? Is responsible fast-tracking of previously disadvantaged people not critical to achieving equity for our society? How do we help an incompetent government not willing to engage with those who are genuinely trying to help? There is no denying that there are pockets of the state which are dysfunctional and not up to the challenges facing South Africa at the moment.
I must point out that I was a member of the first cohort of black archivists appointed by the state in the new dispensation during the mid-1990s. Would I have been given that opportunity had there been no legislation requiring the appointment of competent black people to such positions? No. Would I have risen in the profession and taken opportunities without fast-tracking? Probably not. Hersov’s analysis doesn’t account for things like this. It doesn’t prioritise the multitude of young black South Africans just waiting for opportunities. Defining Black Economic Empowerment and Affirmative Action as theft is a lazy argument, to say the least. It doesn’t recognise exploitation and theft over centuries before democracy. For example, I recently had the honour of attending the reburial of the remains of Ntatemogolo Ben Stemmer. Part of his journey included the indignity of being denied a resting place by his then farmer employer and the family having to look for an alternative grave for him. Let me hasten to add that he lost cattle which were stolen by his employer under the pretence of them overgrazing and having to sell them to his employer for less than they were worth. This is a common theme for many Black sharecroppers, including my own great grandfather. Ntatemogolo will never get justice for that theft and no-one will account for it. It pains me to hear Hersov speak of theft today without recognising the history of legalised theft that may have played some part in his own success.
We applaud Hersov’s commitment to finding ways to invest in South Africa even though he believes it not to be investible. We agree with his critique of those who have looted the country’s wealth and mismanaged government for too long. But we are disturbed by the tell-tale signs of a profoundly reactionary dimension to his perspective. His advocacy of gun-ownership, for instance. His indignation at critical race theory being taught in schools. His depiction of a Western Cape secession from the Republic. His lauding of “good organisations like AfriForum”. Well, I could go on…
We owe it to people like Gogo Dlamini and Ntatemogolo Ben Stemmer to keep searching for sustainable solutions to the many intractable problems which beset our country. We owe it to them to keep reckoning with our complex pasts, and to keep believing in liberatory futures.
Let us join hands and help rebuild the South Africa, our country which we consolidated into one since 1994.. We have a terrible past behind us and a promising future ahead of us. We all share a solemn obligation to respond to the call of that future. South Africans working together to rebuild their country into their collective dream of it will itself be part of the necessary process of strengthening our cohesion as a people.