Nelson Mandela Foundation

Con Court

Over the past few weeks, the region has been moved by the deaths of a number of activists and liberation leaders: Namibian Andimba Toivo ya Toivo, former President of Botswana Quett Ketumile Joni Masire, and South Africans Lord Joel Joffe and Kesval “Kay” Moonsamy, and more recently Ntate Johnny Mekoa and Mme Emma Mashinini.

They were all part of a generation of liberation stalwarts, serving their countries and people with distinction and dedication despite the gravest of odds. These deaths bring into sharp relief the closing of a chapter in Africa’s history. As we move from the post-colonial and apartheid state, we know that the liberation of our region from the yokes of poverty, inequality, racism and exclusion will come from a new generation. This new generation will stretch across the continent and be comprised of a vast range of actors, from grassroots activists, to socially conscious businesspeople and forward-thinking politicians, to daring journalists.

Like the generation before, the new generation of activists will also struggle against difficult odds. One such activist who paid the highest price was the journalist Suna Venter. Threats, harassment, intimidation and attempted murder ultimately led to her heart condition and untimely death. Suna was an example of an activist who lived with principles and courage. Her passing should encourage new forms of activism to respond to the growing threats in our country.

In 1996, Madiba spoke at the Cape Town Press Club’s 21st anniversary and noted, “The media fraternity is more than just a critical observer of history in the making. At least in our young democracy, it contributes not merely by being a watchdog. It is a builder; it is an active participant.”

Madiba knew the importance of the press and that despite the problems in terms of transformation and reporting, he stated in 2002, “South Africa should put the freedom of its press and media at the top of its priorities as a democracy. None of our irritations with the perceived inadequacies of the media should ever allow us to suggest even faintly that the independence of the press could be compromised or coerced. A bad free press is preferable to a technically good subservient press.”

Madiba’s words should guide us as we go into particularly turbulent times ahead. Democracy is built on institutions, values and agencies that must be protected, cultivated and transformed, yet too often we use minor criticisms to write off important aspects required to build our democracy. Our goal as a nation should be to transform institutions without delegitimising and destroying them in the process.

One critical part of our democracy that is either perceived as the last bulwark of the country or gatekeeper of privilege, is the Constitution. Following our Board retreat last month, the Foundation, aware of the critiques of the Constitution, was mandated to underlie our work with a sense of “constitutionalism”.

For the Board, the Constitution needs to be given life through our actions and our ways of being. The underlying values of the Constitution are beyond reproach. Thus, while we may argue about particularities of the Constitution, the elevation of justice, freedom, equality and dignity should be the foundation on which we build our country. It is these values that the drafters of the Constitution, as well as the leadership in the country, sought to fundamentally protect and elevate to build a nation and a sense of citizenship.

A nation will always be in flux and will always require constant renegotiation, dialogue and compromise, yet these fundamental values should be entrenched into the social norms of the country. A failure to recognise this will ultimately lead to the failure of the creation of a South African nation and of real citizenship. Instead, as we have seen, a rise in political polarisation, marginalisation, anomie and alienation has become normalised.

I recently had the privilege of travelling to Argentina, a country with its own tormented history of colonialism and dictatorship. In my interactions with many Argentinians, I was able to reflect on the contradictions of our country. On the one hand, I was able to see the love and admiration that many have for South Africa and that in the imagination of many across the world, South Africa represents some of the universal ideals of justice, reconciliation and freedom; on the other hand, I continually noted how we have degraded ourselves and have continually dropped the bar in terms of what we find acceptable, and I found myself unable to justify many actions and the route our country seems to be taking.

If we are to live the Constitution and to give it life, if we are to heal the wounds of the past and build a society built on dignity and freedom, we must consider that many institutions, even those that we may consider problematic, must be protected and transformed. This should not be done through slashing and burning, but rather through dialogue and conscious engagement, with an acceptance of social justice as an underlying condition.

The price of not having them around or severely weakened, and of working toward values that are not aspirational but located in a space of hatred, will be a price too high to pay and an insult to the memories of the liberation leaders before us.