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Mandela a symbol of social cohesion beyond black and white

What happened outside the private-owned Mediclinic in Arcadia, Pretoria, in the last six weeks that Nelson Mandela was in hospital was neither a make-believe kaleidoscope of non-racialism nor uncaring citizens trying to be what they are not.

Rather, this monumental expression of solidarity, cooperation and interaction of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, trans-class and largely public display of love, unity, care, concern and pride was a significant measure of a nation coming into its own.

For all the beautiful, heart-tugging, emotional outpouring and atmosphere of a political, social, cultural and religious festival, and its downright post-apartheid behaviour, it signified the sense of “people’s power” and how citizens of this country are intuitively connected to one another and share a common desire to make this a caring and proud society that works.

Mandela’s illness expressed and highlighted the powerful values, principles and ideals that glue this nation together: prayer, hope, love, care and pride, among others. No one can deny that not only is Mandela an icon of social cohesion but he inspires an inclusive spirit that galvanises individuals, organisations and communities to revive the common goal of living and working together as one people in one country. Any other interpretation of the man’s life misses the mark.

Of the thousands of people who convened and gathered outside the gates of the hospital, the biggest number came from religious groups, a small but significant portion were from the governing party — including the highest level of government — some were women, youth, children and a delegation from his tribe, if you like. But we also witnessed media, professionals, police, students and countless ordinary folks, including those from early learning centres and primary schools who were moved by the plight of this saintly figure.

The picture of South Africa that was displayed was one of non-racialism, non-sexism, non-tribalism, non-partisanship, unity and an open willingness to work together to keep the spirit of Mandela alive. Mandela may have been immobile in his body but his strong spirit moved the length and breadth of this country, stirring each and every one, wherever they may have been.

The meaning of this forward-moving national action-oriented prayer event for Mandela in Pretoria — the former bastion of racism and conflict — may be difficult for some to grasp because most of us remain trapped in the narrow cynical attitude that says “nothing much has changed in South Africa” since 1994. But these debilitating views deny us the ability to recognise significant steps that have been taken towards transcending apartheid barriers, inspiring individuals and organizations to be agents of what they want to see and empowering communities to be seen to be building social cohesion and contributing to nation-building.

Nothing can be more beautiful than a picture of little black boys and girls holding hands with little white boys and girls not only to pray for Madiba but to define and project a picture of the society they want to live in. The painful and distressing condition of Mandela is testimony to just how this prophet and visionary has redefined our history and heritage in the last two decades since his release in February 1990. His dream and legacy of a non-racial society where black and white will live and work together to rebuild this society will never disappear.

In fact, our public discussion and conversations on social cohesion and nation-building overlook and even suppress the best of who we have become in the last 20 years and what we continually try to be on a day-to-day basis. Instead, we continue to judge social cohesion on the basis of how often black and whites get together at a stadium rather than the internalisation of the values and principles that Mandela lived for.

We have to begin to recognise the complexity of the life-transforming process of when a man learns to love a former enemy as he loves himself. The difficult thing is that there are no performance indicators or instruments to measure the change in a selfish and greedy man that has changed into a caring and proud soul. To this day, no one has told us how and when Mandela turned from this fire-spitting revolutionary renegade to a gentle prophetic pacifist who deplored war to become a champion of peace and harmonious co-existence.

The cynical notion that nothing has changed since Mandela came out of prison 23 years ago is simplistic — precisely because it focuses largely on how blacks, for instance, are doing measured against whites, especially in the economic and material dimension of life.

In fact, there is obsessive preoccupation to judge social cohesion by the number of previously disadvantaged individuals who live in the suburbs, have expensive cars in the garage and with children who go to Model C schools. The predictable outcome of this yardstick is that it, unavoidably, integrates black people into the establishment they fought against without transforming its essence.

Yet the revolutionary programme of social cohesion and nation building requires that individuals must look not at his neighbour but the man and woman in the mirror. People must change not only their behaviour and attitude to others but transform themselves into agents of what they want to see happen for SA to arrive at an egalitarian society.

What is urgently needed is not just for one to speak highly of or even pray for Mandela but to change oneself to be an individual who lives and acts out the values and principles he preached in his life. We must be examples of what we want to see happen in this caring and proud society.

We have to learn to recognise the humanity of white people in a way that does not hesitate to say they, too, are agents of social cohesion. Black people do not need a third eye to see that some whites are compassionate and do not see beggars at robots, for example, as sub-humans but fellow human beings who need food, clothing and shelter. And if any person, black or white, responds positively towards the needy, this is a little gesture that goes a long way towards social cohesion and nation building. In fact, it is through a little gesture of kindness, warmth and love that the cement and bricks that build a caring and proud society come alive.

How does it make you feel to do one little act that will decide whether a fellow citizen goes to be bed with or without food? As South Africans, we tend to set too high a standard for ourselves and forget that it is the little things that make the big ones. I do believe that through little acts of kindness and love, we can make Mandela proud and even do better than he did.

You too can not only reclaim and restore the legacy and heritage of Mandela but can celebrate it by being an agent of social cohesion and the society he desired to see in the new South Africa. Your part will always be bigger than Mandela’s.


  • Sandile Memela

    Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic, columnist and civil servant. He lives in Midrand.