Leadership &Training

Thirty years after Madiba returned


The month of February was a full and intense one for the Foundation.

It draws our report year to a close, so consequently much internal work had to receive attention at the same time as we undertook a rich array of public engagements. Let me mention just a few highlights.

We marked the 30th anniversary of Madiba’s release from prison with a medley of three events in Cape Town in partnership with national, provincial and local government.

On 11 February 2020, together with Google, we also delivered an extensive new layer of online content to our global audiences in honour of the anniversary. Earlier in the month we signed an MOU with the Nelson Mandela University at a public event. This agreement will underpin our collaborations moving forward in the areas of scholarly research on the life and times of Madiba, leadership development, anti-racism work, and sustainable Mandela Day initiatives.

The Mandela Day programme for 2020 got an early boost as we were able to host the unveiling of a new toilet facility (to replace highly dangerous pit latrines) at the Madima Primary School in North West province. This is a collaboration with the Department of Basic Education and Engen, which will see the delivery of such facilities to two other schools (in KZN and the Eastern Cape) later in the year.

So, much endeavour and many activities in February. It was also a month full of significant moments: from the world finally realising that the coronavirus poses a dangerous global challenge, to the loss of music icon and founding leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo Joseph Shabala; from yet more shamefully chaotic scenes in Parliament (I fear we are undermining our democracy one parliamentary sitting after another) to more deaths of learners in school uniforms. But for me the month of February was defined by two things.

Firstly, the untimely passing of Shaun Johnson, former Chief Executive of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation and former acting Chief Executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. This came as a shock and is a great loss to our organisation and to me personally.

I got to know Shaun through many years of collaboration and came to admire his deep commitment to promoting Madiba’s legacy and his tenacity in driving processes in support of that goal. I also came to respect, and at times draw on, his wisdom. As I said publicly soon after his passing, Shaun made a vital contribution to our organisation at a challenging time during his relatively short tenure at the helm. And thereafter he always took a keen interest in what we were doing and lent an ear whenever we asked for it. He will be missed.

February also provided us with rude reminders of the tenacity of apartheid denialism. Shortly after Madiba’s release from prison he asserted that “our own liberation from prison is taken as a signal that the people will soon liberate themselves from the larger prison represented by the apartheid system.”

Thirty years later we have to ask: how successful was the work he led through the 1990s? Has the apartheid system been fully dismantled? How free are South Africans today? We need to be frank in answering these questions. We have not succeeded in fully dismantling apartheid.

We have not achieved the transformation Madiba dreamed of. Racism as an apparatus of power which oppresses all people of colour and black people in particular disturbingly remains in place. And through the terrible years of neglect, of state capture, poor leadership at many levels of society, and the ravages of corruption, we have added multiple intractable problems to the ones the country’s leadership faced immediately after 1994. In these circumstances commitment to the punishingly hard work of transformation has to be our watchword, as it was for Madiba when he came out of prison. I say “we” in the sense of “we at the Foundation”, but also in the sense of “we South Africans”.

With these realities and imperatives in mind, how outrageous it is to have to listen to people who still deny that apartheid was a crime against humanity and who suggest that it was not so bad after all. There is a lot that could be said on this matter. And we have said a lot on it publicly during February. For now though, let us just listen for a moment to Madiba, in prison, in 1976, reflecting as follows:

“Apartheid is the embodiment of the racialism, repression and inhumanity of all previous white supremacist regimes. To see the real face of apartheid we must look beneath the veil of constitutional formulas, deceptive phrases and playing with words.”

Is it not shameful that people who were playing with words in the apartheid years are still playing with words today? Is it not unacceptable that so many South Africans prioritise word games and point-scoring when so much hard work remains to be done?

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