What’s in a name?

Sello Hatang: CEO, Nelson Mandela Foundation

Ahmed Kathrada. (Image: NMF)

It is with great sadness that we say goodbye to our Uncle Kathy. From the formation of the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF) until last year when he resigned, Mr K was one of the most erudite and empathetic members of our Board. But for most of us at the NMF, he was much more than a Board member – he was a friend, a confidant, an advisor and, most importantly, an inspiration.

We all know of the love Madiba had for Mr K, and like our Founder, we also loved Mr K dearly. We grieve as a Foundation, and we grieve as a nation.

What we witnessed at Mr K’s funeral, of tolerance and non-racialism, is the dream he spent his life fighting for. Yet over the past few years, we have seen how labels and words have been used to silence and ostracise. We have seen how labels have pulled us further away from Mr K’s dream of a united, non-racial and tolerant society. These labels were particularly notable at subsequent memorial services around the country.

“Liberal”, “radical” and “sell-out” – these are just some of the labels I have been called since taking on the position of CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. A label has become a powerful tool to undermine and to delegitimise. In our contemporary political language, terms such as “racist”, “agent”, “sell-out”, “white monopoly capital”, “house nigger” and “Uncle Tom” have replaced the deep political and ideological dialogue we should be having.

Similarly, ad hominem attacks have become a norm, and using labels has also become a powerful tool to exclude and alienate voices, to silence. Reaching out to engage with one another is seen as a sign of weakness and a compromise.

Our “othering” and labelling of people does not only extend to individuals, but also to groups and “races” of people, ideological leanings and political parties. How often have we heard about how “the foreigners” are causing crime in the country, or that “white monopoly capital” is the enemy?

Yet beyond these statements there lies little in terms of serious critical unpacking and analysis. We would rather blame a migrant to South Africa than try to understand their plight. Rather than engaging with the dynamics of the political economy, and instead of confronting the problems of our history as well as the weakness in our state, we lay blame on “white monopoly capital”, which remains largely undefined.

“Radical economic transformation” is another new term that's taking root and helping legitimise attacks on white monopoly capital, even though there is no policy framework for implementing such transformation, and in the process helping dismantle white monopoly capital.

Ours has become an age of blame, rather than one of responsibility and understanding. In doing so, we can undermine important projects and tools of transformation.

If we are to take minority ownership of the economy seriously, we need to engage with understanding how power and ownership have taken place, and also how we can use the economy to empower. However, instead of these arguments, blame is laid on an “enemy” that has taken on almost mythical proportions. We often forget that words are powerful tools, and as Madiba once said:

“It is never my custom to use words lightly. If twenty-seven years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.”

Similarly, in the creation of a label and an enemy, we have begun to isolate ourselves. In our history, we have seen the power that different groups can have by engaging as a collective and creating a movement. However, we have reached a point where our focus is on limiting the supposed enemy rather than looking for possibilities for collaboration, or for creating a mass or united movement.

American political scientist Francis Fukuyama has referred to the United States becoming a “vetocracy”. In other words, the bipartisanship of the political system has created a system ruled by veto power – parties express their power through vetoing actions they disagree with. In his analysis, political decay has begun to set in as parties begin acting primarily to limit the progress of any other party.

This has become the case within the South African context, and the result is an increasingly dysfunctional system. The danger of this kind of bifurcation and inability to engage with another was evident at the recent National Education Crisis Convention, where we saw how freedoms were infringed, labels were attached in order to delegitimise others, and deep prejudice was expressed.

The dialogue that we tried to create and the sense of purpose to find a solution to a critical social issue were quickly undone in a matter of hours. At the end of the day, the efforts of civil society and of student-led solutions came to nought. A valuable opportunity was squandered, all because of a growing culture of political intolerance.

As we approach Madiba’s centenary, and with the recent passing of Ahmed Kathrada, we can reflect on many of the virtues and values that the generation before us held. It gives us time to pause and to think not only of these values, but of why people like Mandela and Kathrada chose the paths they did.

Many of the stories about Mr K and Madiba relate to their ability to engage deeply and to listen to alternative viewpoints. While the actions of the generation before may be critiqued, we should also note that many of their views were shaped through deep and respectful consultation and engagement. Importantly, their compassion and pragmatism should never be confused for weakness, as is erroneously done by political actors and analysts.

As we move into a new era without these veritable leaders, we should remember what they have mandated us to do and how they told us to do it. At Madiba’s funeral, reminding us of these values, Mr K stated:

“Xenophobia, racism and sexism must be fought with tenacity, wisdom and enlightenment. Anything that defines someone else as ‘the other’ has to go. Tolerance and understanding must flourish and grow.”

When I went to see Mr K in hospital just before he passed on, I saw a man who could no longer walk the miles to true freedom with us. He had dedicated seven decades of his life to fighting for truth, justice, peace and tolerance, and he knew that there were many miles ahead.

As we look back on his legacy and the values he espoused, we should reflect that these are not only ideals to hold ourselves to, but also practical considerations needed in creating a shared and equitable future. We can choose to keep going on this destructive course, or take a step back and help build our economy in order to fulfil the dreams of the majority in our country.