It is not every day I attend the launch of a rose. But when the rose is named after Nelson Mandela and the event is at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Houghton, it is very difficult to decline the invitation.
The event took place on Thursday and what an event it was. My highlights were a special performance by the legendary Imilonji Kantu choir, which became famous as the ANC’s choir in exile, accompanied by soprano Sibongile Khumalo. Mandla Langa, who completed Mandela’s second biography, Dare Not Linger, read a moving poem. I also caught up with old friends and associates, including Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and his wife Leah. The Arch said he enjoyed reading my column (blushes).
There was also plenty of talk about love - being the launch of a rose, one would have expected this - but it was about Mandela’s love for his people and his love for service. It was not about the version of love which will have the world’s lovers going crazy on Wednesday.
Caught up in the emotion of the day, I thought about Sunday, February 11, 1990, the day Nelson Mandela was released 28 years ago.
This day will remain vivid in my memory because it represented, for many at the time, the end of the Struggle and the beginning of something new. Precisely what this something new was, nobody knew.
We all know now that we were a bit short-sighted to think the Struggle would be over because of one event - the release of the world’s most celebrated political prisoner, which followed the unbanning of the ANC, PAC and other political parties nine days earlier when the National Party president, FW de Klerk, made his famous speech that would change South Africa for the better.
But we could have been forgiven for our exuberance that Sunday morning when we heard the news that we had all expected that week, much like we have been expecting the news of Jacob Zuma’s departure as president of the Republic of South Africa this week.
I remember us driving in convoy from our home in Mitchells Plain, proudly flying the ANC flag which we could not display openly just over a week before, and waiting excitedly on the Grand Parade to see and hear the great man who had been our leader despite being in prison for 27 years.
My tears rolled freely when Mandela finally appeared on the balcony of the City Hall and proclaimed himself to be a servant of the people who had fought against white domination and who would fight against black domination. Despite just coming out of prison, he committed himself to the people, as he did at the Rivonia Trial which led to his imprisonment, and said he was prepared to give his life for his ideal of a free people and country.
I remember turning to one of my best friends, saying that this was our president speaking. At that point, of course, Mandela was not even president of the ANC and we had no idea whether he would eventually become president of the country.
Tomorrow, the current ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa, who held the microphone for Mandela as he spoke on the day of his release, will hope that some of Mandela’s magic will rub off on him and the party, which has become a pale shadow of the organisation Mandela, and Oliver Tambo before him, led.
But Ramaphosa will need more than trying to mimic Mandela and invoke his spirit if he is to rekindle public confidence in the ANC. There are too many people who were prepared to sacrifice their lives for the ANC who have given up on the party. And there are too many young people whose only experience of the ANC is the corruption and incompetence which have overshadowed all the good that was done by many comrades in what we used to call “the movement”.
When Ramaphosa finally replaces Zuma as president of the country, he has to go beyond rhetoric and symbolism, in the way he governs but also in way he leads the ANC. He needs to show that he is serious about a new beginning for the organisation that celebrated its 106th birthday on January 8 this year.
The only way to do that is by taking action against people who are perceived to be corrupt, irrespective of the position they hold in society or in the ruling party.
I hope to be standing on the Grand Parade tomorrow, listening to Ramaphosa speaking, and I might even shed a tear again. But my tears this time will not be because of joy. Instead, they will be because of the way our hope has evaporated, like the water in the Western Cape, and how, in a short space of time, we have managed to destroy a once-proud movement and almost managed to destroy a great country too, all because some people could not control their greed.
In the year that we celebrate Tata Madiba’s 100th birthday, let’s hope that Ramaphosa will be able to restore our confidence in our country’s leaders once again. We can only live in hope. Mandela earned our love and respect.
The jury is still out on whether Ramaphosa will be able to do the same.
(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 10 February 2018)