A Human Rights Day 2018 reflection on Mandela's Legacy to South Africa

In the year of the centenary of Mandela's birth, there is continuing discussion of Mandela's legacy to the country he came to rule for a short five years, given the pervasiveness of the injustice of deepening inequality and the continuing marginalization of the majority of people in the country.

At a powerful dialogue on National Human Rights Day at the Apartheid Museum, 21 March 2018, Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh opened the discussion with his critique that the people of the country were "sold a lie" that the vote would solve all our problems.

Mpofu-Walsh regretted the manner in which South Africans at that time had sought to deify Mandela and in the process had adopted one of three flawed narratives - a miracle narrative based on a rhetoric that claimed South Africa's exceptionalism; a hope narrative that offered people the sustained hope for a better life; and a progress narrative that we were still on track towards this goal. None of these were quite honest, he asserted, as we all colluded in a politics of spectacle that prevented real socio-economic change, because of the driving need to secure stability and peace in a nation "that was dying politically, economically, socially and culturally." As Sizwe asserted, Mandela gave us a short reprieve in which to make the necessary change. This short reprieve provided for the postponing of justice but required that justice in the form of reparative measures, could not be indefinitely delayed, as has characterized the current situation in the country.

Karima Brown reminded the audience of Fidel Castro's assertion about the importance of peace, and that peace is not possible without development. The development he envisaged was not the technocratic design and imposition of solutions from above, as characterized much of Mbeki's term of office, but rather support to the people to be resourced to conduct their own development, a key principle of post-liberation Tanzanian President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere's development agenda. She warned that we should never again outsource our politics to "big men" and that we have to correct historical injustices.

Liepollo (Lebohang) Pheko, daughter of former PAC President Dr Motsoko Pheko, claimed as a universal human right the right of each person to their humanity. The PAC-led Defiance Campaign against the enforced carrying of the dompas by black South Africans that led to the brutal shooting of unarmed and peaceful people who had presented themselves for arrest at the Sharpeville Police Station on 21 March 1960, she explained, represented a rejection by black people to the dompas' denial of black personhood - the right of black people to exist in South Africa. She called for corrective justice and new economic relations in South Africa today.

Nelson Mandela Foundation CEO, Mr Sello Hatang, explained the context that had informed Mandela's decisions of the first post-transition era when Mandela's primary task had been "to try to stabilize a dying patient". He suggested that the current era is still involved in dealing with the after-effects of this terminal illness. He shared the conversation between Mandela and the two SADF (S A Defence Force) Generals, Hartzenberg and Viljoen when Mandela had explained to them that they could choose a long and brutal war which they would never win and which would destroy everything, taking everyone back to having to rebuild the country, as is happening today in Syria, or they could participate in a peaceful resolution of the conflict. He explained that we had postponed accountability with a promise of hope so that we could have a stable country in which we could together re-imagine ourselves as a new country. He called for all of us to be truthful about history.

An audience discussion followed in which participants highlighted the need for white people to become part of these conversations, so as not to preserve their privilege but rather to play a remedial role. The dialogue concluded with statements of the conviction that our state is able to represent all of us and that contestation is part of the process; that our people need material and psychosocial justice and that "silence poisons all of us".

The resounding conclusion was that the TRC failed delivery on reparations and restitution was a requirement that could no longer be delayed.


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