Politicians only pretend to promote Mandela’s values

It is ironic that in the week when we marked the fourth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s passing, the news was dominated by many examples of how Madiba’s legacy is being undermined in South Africa today.

Off the top of my head, there is the Public Protector’s report which shows how “public servants” in the Eastern Cape siphoned off money meant to be used to organise Mandela’s funeral.

Instead, they used it to fatten the bank balance of preferred “service providers” - some who did noteven provide any service.

The report talks about R300 million, but this is restricted to a few towns in the Eastern Cape, and there was probably millions of rands more, abused in the same way over the same period in other parts of the country.

Then there is the ongoing Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings into the plight of psychiatric patients who were removed from private health into the “care” of dodgy NGOs that were clearly just taking the money but unable to provide any service for the patients.

Every time I watch only a minute of the arbitration hearing, I get angry that needy people and their families were treated with such disdain and disgust.

I hope that everyone responsible for this tragedy will be made to pay in their personal capacities and not be able to hide behind their “official” positions and responsibilities.

Another ongoing “event” is the parliamentary inquiry into corruption at Eskom.

As an experienced journalist, I am expected to use the word “alleged” whenever I write about corruption, but there is nothing alleged about the corruption at Eskom. It is just about determining the scale and who was responsible.

Every day of the hearing, there have been shocking allegations of incompetence, about board members turning a blind eye to theft, knowing they can always turn to the public if they run out of money. Hopefully, the thieves will face their day in court and some of the money will be recovered.

But the story that upset me most this week, was about the international study that indicates that 78% of Grade 4 learners are not able to read with comprehension.

This means that they might be able to mouth certain words, but have no idea what it means. South Africa is bottom of the 50 countries surveyed.

I found this news shocking but not surprising.

If there is anything that makes a mockery of Madiba’s legacy, it is the way our education system has digressed over the past 23 years.

It has become more about making sure we have a certain percentage of matriculants who pass every year, at least more than the previous year, and not about the quality of education provided.

Madiba’s love for children is well-documented and can be seen in the legacy projects he supported and that still continue to this day, including the children’s foundation and the children’s hospital that carries his name.

Madiba also, when he was president, regularly coerced businessmen into building schools in the rural areas to make sure that rural children would have the opportunity to be educated with dignity.

These are just four aspects that I could think of immediately as I reflected on Madiba’s legacy and the important role he played in our society. There are many more shocking examples of how his legacy is being undermined and undone.

Next year, when we mark what would have been Madiba’s 100th birthday in July, there will, no doubt, be many activities where politicians will try to remind us of the values by which Madiba lived.

I doubt whether there are many politicians in South Africa today who are qualified to speak with honesty about Madiba’s values, and who are helping to promote those values.

But it is important for us who can be described as “ordinary people” to reflect on the values of Madiba and to look at how we can live up to those values, despite and not because of the politicians.

Meaningful change will only come about if it is driven by ordinary people and not by so-called leaders. Leaders have a tendency to become distant from their followers, irrespective of political party.

They need to be reminded from time to time that they are supposed to be our servants, as Mandela indicated on the day of his release from prison.

All of those who are concerned about the future need to continuously reflect on what we can do to make South Africa the great place we know it can be. And then we need to do it.

This is the best way to pay tribute to Madiba and his legacy.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Satuday 9 December 2017)