Time for us to take things into our own hands

Sello Hatang, Chief Executive, Nelson Mandela Foundation

Nelson Mandela 100 allows us to scale up our projects and continue working towards building the country Madiba envisaged.

Madiba left behind a remarkable legacy. He remains an example of a freedom fighter and servant leader who was guided by an unshakable moral fortitude.

There is no denying the extraordinary role he played throughout his life. As a liberatory figure, he fought for social justice throughout his life, dedicating it to ending the inhumane inequalities of the system.

His time in office and his post-presidential life were marked by a commitment to unifying and advancing the county.

For many of us he represented the best of both the warrior and the pacifist, and became the role model of a post-liberation statesman.

However, as we reflect on his life, we are also cognisant of his mistakes, failings and shortcomings.

It was particularly important for Madiba to be seen as human, so that his mistakes and his errors of judgement could be challenged by those around him.

He knew that there was no perfect solution that lay ahead for South Africa and he knew that no one person had the knowledge to create a perfect blueprint for the future. Instead, there was a need for imperfect humans to come together, to engage and to discuss, and to co-create a system that could benefit as many as possible.

In the 20-odd years since the Madiba presidency, what has been left behind is far from his dream.

Madiba knew that there were “many more hills to climb” and that his legacy was an important, albeit imperfect, one. Knowing the seemingly impossible challenge ahead, Madiba constantly reiterated that it was now “in your hands”.

As custodians of his legacy we understand that we can't rely on the legacy of Madiba to end the problems in our country. Instead, progressive and sustainable change is now in our hands.

In our view and as we seek to take things into our own hands, there are a few key elements to create and cultivate the conditions necessary for transforming South Africa and ending the current malaise that has taken hold of our country.

First, we must focus on new political imaginations firmly rooted in traditional and localised solutions to deepen democracy and to create the conditions for people to exercise agency over their own affairs.

As we continue down a path of technocratic solutions, we need to be aware that people themselves know what they need.

True democracy answers the calls of its people, but also gives people agency to determine what they need.

Second, we should realise that in order to give life to democracy we must entrench these rights, not only legislatively but also in practice, and we should respect and afford people the same rights, whether they are in rural or urban areas or in wealthy or poorer suburbs.

For example, we know that many South Africans are faced with violence on an ongoing basis that impacts their ability to live a full life.

Freedom of movement is no longer curtailed by the racialised laws of the past, but rather the inability to protect and provide security to citizens who often can't walk in their suburbs at night.

These are fundamental democratic rights that are not being protected and it's up to us to advocate for these changes that can create conditions of real freedom.

Third, we must realise the unfinished business of post-apartheid South Africa is a long-term project and that we are still only beginning the transition. However, an inclusive and equitable transition must be accelerated in the interests of both stability and growth.

Working towards fixing these imbalances and righting the wrongs of the past is integral. This has to be married with economic growth and reducing the inequality gap.

We must be brutally honest with ourselves and consider that even if all were equal, the per capita income per citizen would not create the livelihood we expect, thus inclusive growth is a necessary precondition.

In saying this, we also accept that many of the problems we see today have centuries-old roots and that during the transition there were missteps by the ANC, and this extends to decisions made by Madiba himself.

Rather than continually decrying these failures we need to quickly work towards undoing these legacies. We have to appreciate that many of the policies of the 1994 government and of the TRC process were not followed through and we must urgently review these failures and work towards creating a system where all can live with dignity.

When we analyse the calls of people to “return the land” and look into our history, we appreciate that these calls represent the various types of dispossession and marginalisation that have taken place.

We need to recognise that state processes may not be the only solution and that by engaging with others, we can find collective sustainable and equitable solutions.

Fourth, and linking to the above-mentioned points, our focus should be on creating functioning and thriving institutions, both public and in civil society.

Meaningful and equitable transformation and growth need institutions that work efficiently and justly.

The continued and targeted eroding of institutions will lead to devastating failure and kleptocracy over real transformation. Vague notions of “enemies” such as “white monopoly capital” or “foreign businesses” cannot be used as a smokescreen to protect dubious interests against the public good.

Accountability for failures must take precedence over politicking. When there are injustices there has to be accountability.

Those who were responsible for the deaths of 94 people in Gauteng, or those who nearly brought the country to a standstill in terms of the provision of electricity, must be brought to book both criminally and financially. The same applies to those who have gutted our resources and reneged on their promises to communities and their environmental responsibilities.

Fifth, we need a level of political maturity to put aside ideological differences and instead work towards creating powerful collective movements and focused growth. Some of our core work is in the space of dialogue and for us one of the major concerns is the difficulty in creating a space for dialogue where any engagement with another is seen as a compromise. We cannot create a robust political space if discussions only take place in echo chambers.

We should, however, take care in creating spaces that are safe enough for people to share their views without fear or favour. We will always have differences of opinion and in lived experiences, but these various views and standpoints must be harnessed into collective power.

While saying this we also must align with those who stand for social justice rather than those who seek to exclude and oppress.

As we move into the next two years we believe that we should use the reflection of the Madiba legacy to truly own it and for us as a people to take it in our hands and create the future that we wish to see. We should remember the words Madiba wrote: “A new world will be won not by those who stand at a distance with their arms folded, but by those who are in the arena, whose garments are torn by storms and whose bodies are maimed in the course of the contest.”

It's time for us to take up Madiba’s mandate, to take things into our own hands and to find the Madiba in all of us.

– Hatang is the Chief Executive of Nelson Mandela Foundation. This opinion piece first appeared in The Cape Times.