We have forgotten Tata's lessons
This week 30 years ago, I was honoured to receive the Nobel peace prize. The prize acknowledged the worth of countless thousands of my compatriots engaged in a righteous struggle against institutionalised racism and violence in South Africa.
Ten years later, the battle was over – or so we thought – as Nelson Mandela swept to power in our first democratic election, and we set about building a new country on a foundation of human rights, nonracialism, reconciliation and justice.
Our relatively peaceful transition, from pariah state to a darling of the world, bordered on miraculous. We were the Rainbow People of God. For a period, it felt to many of us that we could achieve anything we set out to do, that if we reached for the sky we would literally touch it.
We dismantled apartheid laws, developed a modern and inclusive Constitution and quickly assembled world rugby and continental football crowns. We created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with the trauma of the past. And our government started providing services to black people – houses, water, electricity and social security among them.
The feeling of national euphoria that took hold in those early years of our democracy masked the necessity for us to follow through the work of healing a society battered and bruised by centuries of racial division and oppression.
The transformative magnanimity, inclusivity and sense of common purpose that characterised the Mandela presidency seemed to lull us into a false sense of complacency. The reconciliation priority was prematurely downgraded.
Although a handful of black businesspeople have become very wealthy, mechanisms that promised to redistribute the wealth have, to a large extent, failed – and the gap between rich and poor has widened. Too many of our people don’t have jobs. The land reform process has proven sluggish. Our education system is battling to deliver the level of knowledge and skills that can lift our people out of poverty.
All these factors contribute to retarding the healing of the soul, of the nation, and conspire to create an environment for the intolerable levels of violence and racism that bedevil our society today.
South African media coverage this year has been dominated by allegations of government corruption and maladministration, the judicial inquiry into the mass killing of striking miners at Marikana (which mirrored the worst apartheid police atrocities), and the high-publicity trials of two men for killing the women in their lives (our women and children seem constantly under threat from predator men).
In recent weeks, in Cape Town, we have heard about white men beating up black domestic workers, and urinating from a balcony on to black passers-by. It’s as if we’re in a time warp and have returned to the past.
On acceptance of the peace prize I reflected on the rich bounty God had given South Africa; there were enough of the good things for all to live in dignity. This remains the case.
My plea to my compatriots, to the government and civil society, faith leaders and educators, parents and elders and youth, is to institute programmes and trigger discussions aimed at resuscitating the national spirit of magnanimity and common purpose – and fostering self-esteem and self-worth.
Among Madiba’s greatest gifts to South Africa was the lesson he taught us to see beyond pigmentation, beyond gender, sexual orientation, social status and religious belief – to acknowledge the worth of all people.
That’s where it begins.
God bless our leaders and our people.