/ 24 April 2014

ANC and Cope: Freedom unites two generations

Gertrude Shope
Gertrude Shope

Lyndall Shope-Mafole grew up in various places in exile, longing for a country to belong to and call home – but there wasn’t one. South Africa, her home country, could not be called home because she held no document recognising her as a citizen.

It took decades for her dream to come true. She returned home in the 1990s to a country hailed as a miracle, home to the “rainbow nation” many had thought impossible.

Today, as South Africa celebrates 20 years of freedom, Shope-Mafole describes the country as selfish, with citizens who do not understand freedom; a country that has failed the majority of its young people. But she knows freedom – and is living it.

I interview Shope-Mafole, general secretary of the Congress of the People (Cope), and her mother, ANC stalwart Gertrude Shope, at their home in a golfing estate in Centurion, outside Pretoria.

At the entrance, we tell the security guard we are visiting the Shope and Mafole family. We might as well have said the Cope-ANC home, because that is one of the most interesting things about this mom and daughter. ANC and Cope pictures share space on their walls, prominently displayed in the study and lounge.

It is because they understand freedom and democracy that they can live peacefully together and respect each other’s choices, they say. Their views reveal freedom fighters who know what the country needs and how those needs can be met but differ on the best delivery vehicle.

Shope-Mafole was raised in the ANC but left the party in 2008 to become one of Cope’s founders. It was not difficult, Shope says; everyone in the family has the freedom to belong to an organisation of their choice.

“I went to a Catholic school, an Anglican school and then a Metho­dist school,” she says. “All of them were singing the same songs, we were praying to the same God. It was just a matter of applying different methods.”

Shope-Mafole was anxious about breaking the news about moving to Cope to her mother but knew her freedom to choose would be respected.

“Fortunately in this house we are always discussing politics. We differ on some things, we agree on other things, but we are always discussing. I knew that my family would understand and accept why I did that because our family is a truly democratic family.”

This is the freedom the family looked forward to when they were coming home. “The fact that you can live anywhere you want, educate your child in any school, take part in any sport and work wherever your qualifications allow you to work” – these are the best things for Shope.

For Shope-Mafole, the freedom to belong is top of her list. “The possibility to say I’m a South African, I have a country,” she says. “When I was at school [during the exile years] and you were asked to draw your country’s flag and talk about your country, the most painful thing was not to have a country to call my own, not to have a flag.

“When asked to draw your flag, we used to draw the ANC flag and someone would tell you that it’s not your flag. They would show you the South African flag of the old regime. There was always that conflict, that lack of a sense of belonging.” 

In high school in Zambia, Shope-Mafole qualified to compete in the Olympics but was barred from participating “because I didn’t have a country to compete for. The right to have a country is one of the most important ones. Being unable to say ‘This is my country, my flag, my anthem’ was the most depressing thing when I was growing up.”

Does South Africa today represent the freedom the Shopes imagined? The answer is not a clear yes for either of them. They express satisfaction that political freedom, which was the first prize, has been achieved. But a lot still needs to be done. Economic freedom is still a dream for many, says Shope.

“We are still struggling, trying to fight for the freedom that will see everybody being at a level where there is no woman who goes to their neighbour to ask for sugar, that there is no woman whose children are half-dressed because there is no money to buy them clothing,” she says. “We are still fighting for the freedom to live, for the freedom to work. In short, we still don’t have economic freedom.”

For Shope-Mafole, though, the failures of a free South Africa are much more serious than just economic freedom. She acknowledges many good things of the past 20 years but believes the country could have done “twice or three times better than what we have done”. She attributes this to “selfishness”.

The poor quality of education, the failure to make citizens understand freedom and democracy, corruption in government, as well as failing to work in solidarity with other struggling countries – these are some of the things that undermine South Africa’s achievements, Shope-Mafole says.

“As someone who went to school in many countries, including African countries [Zambia and Tanzania], I think that it really is a travesty of justice, it’s a terrible thing what we as a country have done to young people by not empowering them to live meaningfully in this world. Particularly now, 20 years into democracy.

‘Even if we couldn’t do something in the first five years, when people were still learning the ropes of governing, surely the children who started school five years into democracy ought to be on a different level right now?”

Shope-Mafole is also disappointed that “we have not been able to make every South African understand the meaning of freedom and democracy. The fact that thousands of our people burn libraries and the few amenities they have when they are unhappy, sometimes they are hurting each other and killing each other, and on top of that they say ‘We are not going to vote’ means we have fundamentally failed them.”

This would not be the case if South Africans understood that they no longer need to use force to change things they don’t like, she says.

“All you have to do is take a pen and mark it in a particular way [when voting]. We have failed South Africans in making them understand why it is that president [Nelson] Mandela and others spent so many years in prison. They still don’t understand that they have that power that the Freedom Charter describes as ‘power to the people’.”

This failure to understand democracy is also manifest in political intolerance, Shope-Mafole says.

Shope, a former president of the ANC Women’s League, partly blames the reduced role of women in politics. She has called on women from all walks of life to emulate their predecessors and move to the front.

“As it is now, we have sort of become a bit dependent on the situation and yet women of our country used to stand up and fight whatever was the problem and quite a number of times we succeeded,” she says.

One of Shope’s most memorable moments was when women from different political formations, race groups and professions successfully demanded that they be allowed to take part in the main peace talks to end apartheid, rejecting the initial proposal that they would receive feedback and add comments where necessary.

“That thing helped a lot. It was important for women to take the lead, then things started to move.”

The ANC has promised to fight corruption and still sells that as part of its top priorities in its election manifesto, but this, Shope-Mafole says, is one of the biggest setbacks for the country. Some corruption cases have been successfully resolved, but it’s not enough.

“South Africa is a rich country. We have no excuses for the challenges that we are facing, except that we have been able to build such high levels of corruption that it’s almost become our surname.”

It’s worrying, Shope-Mafole says, that South Africans seem to have become desensitised to corruption. “When somebody says there is corruption somewhere, it doesn’t move us any more. I think that’s one of the crimes we have committed against ourselves, particularly those of us who were involved in the struggle.”

If South Africans do not fully participate in the democracy, says Shope-Mafole, little will change for the better.

“Every generation has got a responsibility to know what its mission is,” says her mother. “Mine was to liberate the country; what is yours?”