The Mandela moment: Now it’s time to move forward South Africa

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The past few weeks have been a milestone in our country’s history — there’s no doubt about that. We’ve made huge pronouncements about how we are so very thankful for all that Madiba has done for us, how we pledge to continue and honour his legacy, how so much still needs to change. But what now? I’m sure many of us are asking ourselves this question. Sure we’ve made progress since 1994 and sure many of us are already hard at work moving our beloved country forward. But this week of reflection — both of our history and what still needs to be done — has given many of us renewed energy for the road ahead. What do we need to do to make things right for the past in our country? How does what we do depend on where we were located in the past? As an architect of apartheid injustice or as architect of resistance to injustice; as an implementer of apartheid injustice or as an implementer of resistance to injustice; as someone dishonoured by apartheid injustice or dishonoured in the act of resisting or perpetrating apartheid injustice; as a beneficiary of apartheid injustice or as a beneficiary of resistance to injustice; or as a young inheritor of apartheid injustice or as an inheritor of resistance to injustice. Definitely loads to discuss on this point — but the real point is wherever we were locate our history is complex and not uncomplicated — all of us need to participate in actions to move us forward as a country.

These actions of restitution — “doing sorry” rather than just “saying sorry” and “receiving sorry” rather than believing “sorry is not enough” — need to happen urgently and on multiple levels. Not only in the large institutional, legal and structural ways — by government through affirmative action, black economic empowerment, land restitution and our past truth and reconciliation commission but also in everyday ways — where people can contribute to making things right at individual, interpersonal and community levels — where everybody has a role to play, and does so not out of the largesse of charity (that makes us feel good but not obligated to doing our part) but out of a duty to moving forward.

So what can we do to move forward South Africa?

As an academic (at the Human Sciences Research Council and the University of Cape Town) and as a practitioner (the current Chair of the Restitution Foundation, a small Cape based NGO) I have a few ideas (that I’m sure not everyone will agree with, but at least they are ideas for action). I think, however, that together we can all come up with many more creative and everyday actions. As a new year begins and as we live in the moment Nelson Mandela’s passing has given us to reflect, refocus and renew our efforts to change, let’s think deeply and creatively about the actions that must be done to move forward.

Broadly speaking these actions should include helping people to remember the past so our actions are motivated by duty; to recover lost dignity and to dismiss feelings of shame associated with poverty or undue senses of superiority; to experience a sense of belonging and equality no matter who we are; and to have access to a decent life through opportunities for fair work and useful education. Some will cost money; all will cost time and effort.

In practical terms here are a few I have thought about:

  1. Inheritance of personal wealth: Change your will today to include someone who does not own property rather than just pass on your inherited wealth to your kids. Remember that your inherited wealth was only possible through apartheid’s unjust laws (job reservation, land ownership, differential education).
  2. Education of another: Pay for another young South African to get a great high school education and go to university. Include in your financial sponsorship the mentoring and social capital that your own kids will receive because you know how to help them access jobs, helpful networks and make good personal decisions along the way.
  3. Look people in the eyes: When someone asks for work, money or any other help, no matter how you respond materially, look them in the eye and talk to them with dignity and respect.
  4. Living wages: Beginning with the people you employ at home or in business, sit down and do a job and personal needs assessment. Then pay the person a living wage (rather than a minimum wage).
  5. Public holidays: Make each of our public holidays (Human Rights Day, Youth Day, Women’s Day, Heritage Day and Reconciliation Day) an opportunity to share a meal and a chat about its significance. Do so with a small group of people of who at least half come from a different history in the South African community as you. Tell each other your stories of growing up in South Africa, and listen intently. Repeat frequently.
  6. Cross “racial” adoption: Adopt a child with a different history to yours. And live your family life in such a way that celebrates all of your historical heritages, which may mean learning another language and celebrating different customs.
  7. Religious groups: Change the colour of Sunday mornings or Friday evenings/afternoons. This may mean starting something new, or intentionally gathering a diverse group of people in a mid-week prayer, study or discussion group. So many of us in this country are religious that this action alone could really help us to move forward.
  8. Learn/teach a language different to yours: Works both ways. Ask someone to help you learn to speak isiZulu, isiXhosa or seSotho. Help someone become proficient in business or academic English.
  9. Vote: It doesn’t matter who for but don’t just stay at home. Become active in insisting that people in power deliver on their promises for the benefit of those most excluded. Don’t let your opposition only be heard as a grumble over a beer or over supper. Support the ruling party if you like but hold them accountable to good governance at every turn (booing included!). Strengthen the opposition parties if you like but insist they come up with viable alternatives rather than just complaining about existing polices or looking after the interests of their local constituencies (potholes be damned!). This is the democracy we wanted after all.

Please send your ideas to samovingforward@gmail.com or post a response here. Please also share this post widely to your networks via Facebook or on email. Written submissions can be made to: SA Moving Forward, Private Bag X9182, Cape Town, 8000. Please include a short paragraph about who you are in your submission. I’m planning to make the outcome widely known in the coming few months, while we are still living in this Mandela Moment!

Sharlene Swartz is a research director at the Human Sciences Research Council, adjunct associate professor with the department of sociology at University of Cape Town and chairperson at the The Restitution Foundation.

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