Mandela Day: You cannot do much in 67 minutes

With half the country's politicians apparently rolling up their sleeves on Mandela Day to paint something – orphanages, old-age homes, schools, anything, really – the obvious, cynical question doing the rounds was: Who received the tender to supply the paint?

Perhaps less obvious was whether these 67 minutes were spent doing something that showed a level of activism worthy of the man Nelson Mandela and the years he spent in prison. Did they actually add to South Africans' collective commitment to community and community activism? Was July 18, with its deluge of celebrities and politicians gushing about the cathartic and spiritual alignment they experienced while spending 67 minutes watching paint dry an effective tool in reversing the often criticised post-apartheid trend of apathy?

The Democratic Left Front's Mazibuko Jara believes it was good to get individuals to contribute their time to a cause worthier than themselves, but the actions on Mandela Day "do not help to get communities organised in a sustainable, progressive and transformative way so that these communities can change their lives for themselves".

"Mandela Day leaves structural issues within communities and becomes a propaganda tool for the government to gloss over systematic problems," Jara said.

It is a view echoed by Mnikelo Ndabankulu, of the shack-dweller movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, who described it as a "media opportunity for celebrities and politicians".

Keeping track
"If someone really plans to be an activist, they need a scorecard from July 19 2012 until July 17 2013 to keep track of what they do. Activism is a daily, lifelong thing, not something for just one day.

"Real activism is what we do at an organisational level, working every day to serve people, keep them informed and fighting against injustices like the lack of services in shack settlements, not painting a school for a few hours on one day of the year," said Ndabankulu.

He spent July 18 helping people in Durban's Kennedy Road to rebuild their shacks after a weekend fire gutted about 50 homes.

Not because it was Mandela Day, he said, but because it was what he did, having spent the previous week protesting against the pollution by oil refineries in the Durban South Basin, attending all-night prayer meetings and then assisting at Kennedy Road.

Noting that most of the minutes of activism on July 18 revolved around the dishing out of food hampers and donating homes to people, Jara underlined the debilitating effect this sort of action – however well-intentioned – would have on the agency of ordinary communities to organise themselves.

A national effort
"It's not about building power through communities … It's still not contributing to the idea of a national effort to address the systematic problems we face," he said.

At 8am on Wednesday, this was plain to see: politicians kitted out in eThekwini municipality overalls were gearing up for their 67 minutes of Mandela Day "activism".

It entailed "donating houses in Inanda", handing out "R100 000 worth of equipment" such as fridges to old-age homes, "donating food parcels" and, of course, painting anything that was not going to move.

Chief whip and former eThe-kwini deputy mayor Logie Naidoo said: "We will not engender activism in the country if our actions on Mandela Day are not sustainable."

He said it was important for the ANC to declare the next 10 years "the decade of the cadre" because "the country needs selfless, dedicated and knowledgeable cadres".

Hegemonic tendencies
The Mail & Guardian pointed out that the ANC's hegemonic tendencies sometimes hampered community activism. An example was the occupation of the office of Nomzamo Mkhize, councillor for ward 88, by members of Abahlali and the Unemployed People's Movement, who called for her arrest after she had allegedly physically attacked community activists from those organisations.

Naidoo said he was unaware of the attacks, but the "ANC must be encouraging other civil society organisations to get involved so that we are unified in how we face and deal with the country's problems".

For designer Gert-Johan Coetzee, Mandela Day is about the everyday, in little ways: "I am now more aware of doing good and doing it throughout the year. It makes a difference in my life to add value to the lives of others."

Coetzee spent Mandela Day "joining the protest rally for the activation of micro-loans for women in Africa. This would enable women to take their businesses further."

He also donated animal food to the SPCA and attended a Save the Rhino event later that evening.

Away from July 18, every year he designs a matric dance dress for an underprivileged pupil.

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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