IN THE week that we celebrated what would have been the 99th birthday of former President Nelson Mandela, I found myself wondering about the hypocrisy of many people who believe all they need to do is dedicate themselves to do good for 67 minutes every year.
The rest of the time they continue with their lives, hardly thinking about how to make a difference and bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots in our radically divided society.
There are also people who try to tell us about how we should emulate Mandela when they themselves don’t do so. Chief among these are politicians who spend most of their time undermining Mandela’s legacy but, on 18 July every year, they suddenly remember what made the man great.
In many ways, it is not Mandela’s political values which endeared him to South Africans, but rather his humanity and humility, something which modern-day politicians seem to lack.
I have never believed in doing anything for 67 minutes. I have always believed that goodness is not something that you can switch on and then switch off 67 minutes later. Goodness is something that should become part of who and what you are. It should become part of your DNA.
I am not trying to dismiss the good work done by many people throughout South Africa because, in many cases, it did make a difference to the people who benefited.
The point I am trying to make is that you should not display a badge for doing good for 67 minutes when you do otherwise the rest of the time. I also worry about big corporates who get their staff to perform certain good deeds and then they expect to be applauded for it. If you are going to be true to Mandela’s legacy, then you will do good because it is what needs to be done, and not because somebody is going to write something nice about you in the newspaper or take a photo of your activity.
I have seen a few companies asking their staff to make contributions, which the company then contributes to some charity on their behalf. Surely the point is about making contributions yourself, so what is the point of getting your staff to do the work and then you claim the credit?
I have also seen politicians cleaning up a street in a township and then getting into their fancy cars to go to a fancy lunch for VIPs only.
The other thing that irritates me immensely when it comes to the topic of Nelson Mandela is about who owns his legacy. Like most people who grew up in the struggle, I agree that Mandela was, first and foremost, a loyal ANC member and made his contribution to society in that capacity. But the impact of what he did for surpassed the ANC. In many ways, Mandela became bigger than the political party that he represented.
Whether we like it or not, Mandela belonged to the people of South Africa, including those who never voted for him but felt inspired by him. He embraced people who differed from him politically and, in some cases, won them over.
In any case, poor people do not ask for the political credentials of those who help them. In most cases, they are just glad to be helped. This is why sometimes you see people wearing the T-shirts of political parties without necessarily being loyal to that party. They were just glad to get a T-shirt that could keep the cold away.
I try not to do anything special for Mandela Day. I believe that whatever I do, whether it is work-related or personal, I should do it in the spirt exemplified by somebody like Madiba. I was not about to start counting the minutes when I did good and then switch off after 67. For me, it is important to do good all the time.
South Africa is in a difficult space at the moment. We are beginning to see the effects of the recession and the downgrades. We are clobbered daily by allegations of corruption, mainly involving government.
Part of what people like me do is to make sure that people are informed of what is wrong in our society, in the hope that we can use these lessons to improve the situation. It is not something that starts and ends at any point, and not everybody considers it to be good.
The ANC has made much noise about celebrating the 100th birthday of former ANC president Oliver Tambo this year. I would hope that they would do the same for Madiba next year. But more than that, I hope that they do not wait for next year to understand the lessons of Madiba’s leadership. They should interrogate it now already. Maybe it will help them understand the problems in our society better and provide them with the tools to deal with them.
After all, Mandela never put politics ahead of people, something which our politicians do not seem to understand nowadays. Let’s live Mandela’s legacy and not just for 67 minutes every year.
(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 22 July 2017)