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Shallow rhetoric, Mandela and personal responsibility

I still vaguely remember the first time I found out who Nelson Mandela was. My parents had an ANC sticker in their bedroom wardrobe that carried Mandela’s face. I did not know anything about him at the time, but it wasn’t until my mother caught me trying to remove the sticker that I would first understand how important he was in South Africa, and later the world. My mother’s reaction and stern remarks to never remove or play with that sticker would be one of the first introductions into how deeply etched he, and the ANC, are in the hearts of millions of South Africans. I realise now that I am older that it must have been around 1993 in the build-up to the 1994 historic elections, and so a critical time for both tatu’Madiba and black South Africans.

On his personal Facebook page today, Professor Steven Friedman, expressed the difficulty of talking about Mandela today as a critical thinker. Because, “the job of an academic is to challenge what most people think and feel [and this] is not a day for doing that. On the other, simply repeating what everyone else has said is meaningless. And so the perhaps the most eloquent thing [one] can say today is — nothing”.

This is how I felt for the most part upon hearing the news of tatu’Madiba’s passing late last night, but I realise now it is not enough to say nothing. I just came out of the tribute that Rhodes University did this morning for tatu’Madiba, and one of the speakers, Professor Paul Maylam, said something really profound. He said (paraphrase) that this is not a time for excessive mourning, but rather a time to remember. He continued that Mandela commanded a very high moral authority and was completely “unwilling to engage in shallow rhetoric”. This was a sentiment that was echoed by many of the speakers who highlighted his integrity, moral capacity, dignity and passion for children and education.

In his statement on the passing of tatu’Madiba former president Thabo Mbeki raised the critical question of: “What shall we do to respond to the tasks of building a democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous South Africa, a people-centred society free of hunger, poverty, disease and inequality, as well as Africa’s renaissance, to whose attainment president Nelson Mandela dedicated his whole life?” [my emphasis]

It is important to not keep quiet, because of the huge fame tatu’Madiba commands globally, it is very easy to get lost in him, as a person, rather than also the values he held that eventually made him the global icon he is. Professor Maylam talked about the importance of personal reflection to tatu’Mandela, and how even in prison, he still saw time in that solitude as an opportunity to reflect on his life.

It is this gift of reflection that tatu’Madiba gave us that many people who admire this man’s life ethic do not use. It is not uncommon for instance to see men and women who claim an attachment to racism, sexism and homophobia praising the contribution tatu’Madiba has made, and yet not demonstrating some self-reflection on how they fail his teachings on non-sexism, excessive capitalism, inequality and so on in their personal lives. Tatu’Madiba passes away during the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence, and yet we know many of the leaders who will be at forefront leading tributes to him are well-known misogynists, corrupt and (often violent) patriarchs.

The sticker on my parent’s wardrobe has now faded, as will the memorial services and tributes to tatu’Madiba and we will go back to daily life in South Africa where we have to contend with what is a grim reality for most. What I want to take away from Mandela’s life is not only “admiration” and “inspiration” but also to aim for praxis and personal responsibility.

How do I as an individual at the most basic level contribute to his teaching? How do I for instance respond to inequality and sexism (especially when I witness my fellow wo/men practising it)? Do I sit and preach “shallow rhetoric” or do I speak up and stand up for those who cannot speak up for themselves?

These are the questions as a nation we will all have to grapple with as the “unity” fades, but maybe not today or the next few weeks.

Hamba kahle’Tata. Hamba kahle Mkhonto we Sizwe. Umthi omkhulu uwile.