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A Madiba child

By Shireen Mukadam

I had a dream. I was lying on the grass of the Boston Commons surrounded by three new friends. A Jordanian-Syrian, studying in Australia. A Catalonian Spaniard working in Colombia. And Marube from Kenya — a 52-year-old, who has aspirations of resuming his law degree, which he commenced at 26 in 1986 and then a year later was imprisoned by Daniel arap Moi’s authoritarian regime for six years.

We had met not even five days earlier. It was the day after a mind-blowing shared experience of the Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict, hosted by the International Centre on Nonviolent Conflict. We were all bound by our common humanity. Differences don’t necessarily mean divisions. Dialogue is possible. Tolerance is possible. Understanding is possible. And if all of these are possible, then peace is possible.

The week was spent learning about the history of nonviolent conflict, major concepts of nonviolent conflict including planning, strategising, coalition building, backfire, the role of the media and transitions. (For access to the presentations click here). The course drew on recent case studies of nonviolent movements from around the globe including the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the power of Otpor in Serbia, the civil resistance movement in the US as well as South Africa’s transition from Apartheid to Democracy.

The South African case of course grabbed my attention. Throughout the course South Africa was referred to as a success story. An exemplar of nonviolent conflict, of how a civil resistance movement successfully achieved its objectives.

While I have enormous respect for this view, and do agree that yes it is formidable accomplishment that our country succeeded to formally transition relatively peacefully from a state of apartheid to democracy, I am wary of showcasing this beyond what it is.

The transition to democracy was a political transition. And a formal political transition, as we know, does not necessarily or automatically translate into the transformation of society on deeper levels, economic, social and psychological.

I am a child of the transition. I was born one year after the United Democratic Front was created in 1983, I moved schools to what was known as a “model C” school (previously white only) in January 1993 which also coincided with my family’s move away from Newfields located next to Hanover Park and Manenberg (areas to which nonwhites were relocated to following the Group Areas Act, and which now have the highest incidences of crime, gang-related violence and drug abuse in the Cape Flats) to University Estate (previously reserved for whites only).

My earliest memory of politics is the euphoria surrounding Nelson Mandela and accompanying my parents to the voting station to cast their first votes in March 1994. I was nine years old.

Today, 18 years later I look at my country, its people, leaders and I am filled with a mixture of pride, patriotism (my beaded South African flag travels with me, wherever I may go in this world, pinned to my favorite denim jacket), affinity and admiration, but also a deep sense of regret, anger, sorrow and concern: for the potential that remains.

Our domestic worker Julia who is now in her 50s travels two hours every day to get to work. To make the journey, she has to wake up before dawn, prepare her children and drop them off at a friend who will see to it that they get to school, then take a combination of a taxi and a train, before walking about 1km to reach her job. Her bread and butter. She repeats this routine on the way home in the late afternoon, and then visits various homes in the city each day of the week, five or six days a week.

Her children receive a gutter education. Arguably a similar education she would have had access to when she was a teenager in the 1970s at the height of the apartheid era. Although access to quality education is no long restricted according to race, today you can buy access to quality education. I would argue that the lines of discrimination have shifted, from race to economic wealth. Discrimination has been perpetuated, just this time it’s not race that holds the trump card.

Julia lives in in Philippi, a township of approximately 150 000 people. In her home, she does not have access to electricity nor does she have running water or her own toilet to use. She makes just enough money to sustain this cycle, and this is probably how it will continue until the end of her days.

A fatalistic view, some would argue. But it is reality. And this is the reality of many hundreds of thousands of South Africans today, 18 years later. At least she has a job, others would say.

But is this really freedom?

I would argue no.

We have a collective responsibility to contribute to creating a South Africa in which each woman, man and child is truly free. As Nelson Mandela, our democratic nation’s forefather said: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Cartoon by Nathan Mpangala

Shireen Mukadam is passionate about South Africa, human rights, chai lattés and peacebuilding.


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