A choir from Unity Secondary School in Ekurhuleni performs at the launch of this year’s Mandela Day in Joburg yesterday.
Nelson Mandela Foundation chief executive Sello Hatang pulled over while driving yesterday to call into Kaya FM for an interview about a planned makeover to this year’s Mandela Day.

But the interview was interrupted when a man, who was on alert after a recent home robbery, told Hatang to get away from his property. Although the man may not have meant any harm, the implication for the foundation executive was clear, it was an incident of racial profiling.

That morning - on the 23rd anniversary of Mandela’s swearing-in ceremony – Hatang was making his way to Constitution Hill, where he would join other foundation leaders and activists to launch this year’s Mandela Day and its new theme for July 18, #ActionAgainstPoverty.

With the nation’s highest court as a backdrop, he recounted the incident to a crowd that grew to about 150 and emphasised the need for the country to heal its wounds and people’s suspicions of one another.

“We need to try to re-imagine a South Africa that we want to build, not for those who are still here, but those who are still to be born,” Hatang said.

A part of that, he said, was addressing the issue of poverty.

“Poverty is a product of social injustice, so this suggests we as the masses need to end it ourselves,” Hatang said.

“Madiba said poverty was created by man, therefore, it can also be undone by man too.”

A study last year revealed that one in five South Africans live in extreme poverty. The research - conducted by NGO Ilifa Labantwana, the University of Cape Town’s Children’s Institute and the Presidency’s Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation - also found 63% of children live in poverty, which affected their physical, cognitive and emotional development.

Mamphela Ramphele, a foundation trustee and well-known activist, said although Mandela was largely recognised as a global icon of peace, he was not a Father Christmas, but a revolutionary. It was key that his legacy be defined by his fight for social justice.

His fight was rife with struggles, such as not being able to bury his son, who died while Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island.

“Those things leave scars in us as people. The wounds of the division of white, black, man, woman are still there,” she said. “On the day that we are launching Mandela Day 2017, we’ve got to also embrace the healing that is needed so people can open their hearts to the poverty in our midst.”

Although Madiba’s Struggle for freedom resulted in one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, schools were not doing enough to teach it and the values of human dignity and respect enshrined in it, Ramphele said.

Mandela Day began in 2009, when it was celebrated in New York and Joburg. In a unanimous vote that same year, the UN declared Madiba’s birthday to be Nelson Mandela International Day.

Now the day, which was meant to honour the humanitarian’s legacy rather than the man himself, is recognised in nearly 150 countries.

In the past, the foundation has asked people to commemorate the day by devoting at least 67 minutes of their time – one for each year Mandela was a part of the anti-apartheid Struggle – to community service.

Recent years have seen a pivot towards the idea of “make every day a Mandela Day”. Although the goal remains the same, foundation spokesperson Lunga Nene said an internal audit revealed that the level of impact that Mandela Day had was declining.

As a theme, fighting poverty was broad and personal enough for everyone to relate to it, she added.

Even though poverty may seem too large to tackle, every action counted, she said.

“Whatever it is, (no matter how) small, if you do it consistently, you’re effecting change,” Nene said.

Despite the change, many groups still run with the symbolic number of 67. For example, Habitat for Humanity South Africa, which had a booth at yesterday’s event, was planning a week-long event to build 67 homes for 67 families in Orange Farm.

Poverty manifests in many ways beyond hunger, such as the need to take taxis for cheap transportation.

The recent reported taxi rapes in Gauteng raised the question about how young women affected by violence would tackle poverty.

At a discussion during the launch, Simamkele Dlakavu, a social activist who has spoken out on sexual assault and female empowerment, turned the spotlight on #SafeTaxisNow, a Soul City Institute for Social Justice campaign demanding safe public transport.

The campaign will include self-defence classes, awareness events and mobilising events.

The situation was difficult for girls, who were brought up to trust taxi drivers, Dlakavu said.

Media personality-turned-activist Gerry Rantseli Elsdon asked: “How can they be empowered when they are being disempowered by the same individuals who are supposed to be their caretakers, their brothers, their uncles and their fathers?”

For Mmathapelo Lekgeu, education was the path to change her socio-economic status and made a difference in her community.

However, taxis were her only means to get to school, said Lekgeu, a panellist and member of a Rise Young Women’s Club, a Soul City initiative to give young women a platform for issues that affect them.

“We want our streets back,” she said. “We want to be free and be able to express ourselves in our communities without feeling threatened or at risk.”

Poverty ultimately persisted because of a lack of empathy and political will, Ramphele said, despite South Africa being a nation which prided itself as a people who embrace ubuntu.

She urged people to unite through increased public-private partnerships.

“Let us work together as a people to heal the divisions of the past and to work together to uproot poverty, so we can liberate the energies of all South Africans,” she said.

“We can do it. We’ve done much more difficult things in the past which we didn’t think we could do.

“This one we can do, too,” Ramphele added.