As an organisation with a clear mandate to promote the legacy of Nelson Mandela, the Nelson Mandela Foundation carries a special responsibility as we enter the year marking the centenary of Madiba’s birth. It cannot be a time of focusing only on his life – 2018 is full of other significant anniversaries, from the 25th anniversary of both Chris Hani’s assassination and the 1993 negotiated settlement, to the centenary of Ma Sisulu’s birth.
Already the year has seen us mourning the losses of four prominent South Africans who strove for excellence and made their mark in contributing to the realisation of a truly liberated South Africa – bo-ntate Keorapetse Kgositsile, Hugh Masekela and actor Sandy Mokwena (popularly known as Bra Eddie on TV), and Mme Rica Hodgson. We hope their passing can serve as a reminder that transformative change can come through the sounds of music, art that challenges us, and the ink of a poet. As we ask South Africans to “Be the Legacy” in 2018, it means using our gifts and tools, wherever we are stationed in life, in a way that dismantles the unequal structures of power and protects the most vulnerable.
The year 2018 should also not be the year of simply celebrating Madiba – for the Foundation it has to be primarily about continuing his work. He and his generation of leadership had enormous impact and contributed much. But there remains unfinished business. Through the centenary year the focus of the Foundation’s endeavour will be in three main areas: fighting poverty and inequality; striving to eradicate the scourge of racism; and reckoning with our country’s oppressive pasts.
We take to heart the critique of NGOs offered by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng – while there is a need and a role for NGOs related to the socio-political contingencies of the day, their calling is to address the deep structural dimensions of oppression that South Africa has only begun to grapple with.
Recent events at the Overvaal high school illustrate this well. It is too easy to jump in to situations like this, to demand quick-fix solutions and to use the vulnerable (in this instance young children) in the frontlines. In my own engagements with Overvaal, including a visit to the school, I realised that many advocates of change aren’t really interested in including African languages in the curriculum, but rather in promoting the dominance of English. Equally, constructive discussion has been undermined by those who perceive multilingualism as a threat to their “way of life”. Communities can be brought together by the flourishing of multilingual schools. But this has been hampered by language policies that do not put adequate pressure on institutions to use more than one of South Africa’s 11 official languages.
Language is crucial. It is through language that communities interact, integrate and build social cohesion. And it is through language that we find liberation. This is why Madiba prioritised it and strove for a strategy that would be inclusive. I am reminded of his words: “We do not want to abolish any language; we want to raise the African languages which have been sidelined through the policy of apartheid to equality with English and Afrikaans. That doesn’t mean to say that we are actually downgrading Afrikaans and English; we are merely saying that the other languages must be put on the same basis.”
South Africa has waited too long for radical transformation. For too long we have been held back by the normalisation of the abnormal and the embrace of mediocrity. For too long we have been betrayed by leadership at all levels and in all sectors, which has prioritised self-enrichment rather than societal liberation.
I welcome the signs that 2018 has already given us of a sea change in this scenario. From hearings in Parliament to investigations by security structures, from commissions of inquiry to disciplinary interventions within institutions, we are seeing those in positions of public trust being held accountable. In many ways this represents an insistence that nothing less than excellence is acceptable. May 2018 be remembered as the year in which radical transformation gained traction in our beloved country. Not just as a populist slogan, but as a call to action for doing things differently!