Mandela Day must go beyond being just another annual ritual

People take part in Food Forward SA Mandela Day Food Drive at Century City Conference Centre. Mandela Day should be more than just a charity event says the writer. File picture: Henk Kruger/ANA/African News Agency

People take part in Food Forward SA Mandela Day Food Drive at Century City Conference Centre. Mandela Day should be more than just a charity event says the writer. File picture: Henk Kruger/ANA/African News Agency

Published Jul 18, 2022


By Xola Pakati

Nelson Mandela’s name has become synonymous with the struggle for freedom, democracy, and nation-building. Such was the African National Congress’ prowess and success in profiling Mandela as a central figure in the struggle during the three decades of Oliver Tambo’s stewardship of the organisation.

By the early 1970s, Mandela had become a household name across the globe even as the apartheid regime had him and his fellow freedom fighters incarcerated on Robben Island.

The November 2009 UN General Assembly declaration of July 18 as "Nelson Mandela International Day" was yet another affirmation of his international standing and the virtue of the struggle against apartheid.

Since then, millions around the world spend a minimum of 67 minutes every 18th of July in righteous pursuit of one good deed or another under the slogan: “Take Action! Inspire Change!”

Meaningful social change of the weight with which Mandela and his generation were prepared to die is a function of many factors, one of the most critical of which is a sound theoretical footing.

We should therefore pose questions about whether our country is drawing appropriate lessons from so esteemed a global recognition as the UN’s declaration of Mandela Day and what we should do to maximise its impact here and around the world.

These – and other – questions can help facilitate a necessary process of reflection about Mandela, the struggle he and his comrades led as well as the attainment and sustenance of its ideals today.

Failure to engage with these questions might well inspire the decontextualisation of Mandela, his generation and the struggle itself, a process which some might argue is already underway.

Key national and global figures such as Mandela can morph into Santa Claus charity representations rather than men and women who acted as they did in pursuit of progressive social change.

What you, the reader, is least likely to hear today on Nelson Mandela Day is that he and his comrades such as Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi and others belonged to a legion of liberators – fellow travellers on the African continent and elsewhere in the world – who envisioned free, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous societies in a global setting of inequality within and among nations.

Among these luminaries is Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria, Agostinho Neto of Angola, Patrice Lumumba of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Fuad al-Rikabi of Iraq, Dedan Kimathi of Kenya, Eduardo Mondlane of Mozambique, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Martin Luther King Jnr and Rosa Parks of the United States and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia.

All of them make meaning in the context of the struggle for liberation from colonial and apartheid oppression and post-liberation efforts to redress the hideously unequal and dehumanising social relations of yesteryear.

They dedicated their lives to transforming countries and a world plagued by racism, gender discrimination, poverty, inequality – within and between nations – unemployment, ignorance and disease. For no fault of their own, the task they set for themselves remains a work-in-progress because the ignoble system they contended against has been more than 500 years in existence; and uprooting it out is no walk in the park.

Were they alive and agile today, Mandela and his comrades would, as they did when they lived, team up with their compatriots and the peoples of Africa and the world in a sustained struggle to end the persisting evils against which they fought.

It is up to current and future generations to continue where they left.

Mandela Day thus provides an opportunity to reinsert some pertinent issues on the national, continental and global agenda.

There is a need for a global programme against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerances in our country, continent and the world. While the May 2020 murder of the African American, George Floyd, by a racist police officer, Derek Chauvin, once more shone the spotlight on racism in the United States as it did the world over, we need no reminder that there are many George Floyds in our country and other parts of the world.

A global anti-racism campaign should also encompass an agenda for the equitable distribution of the dividends of freedom to all citizens. We should be concerned about the killing of black people by bullets as we should by systemic poverty, marginalisation and underdevelopment – all of which kill ever so slowly.

The detachment and generation to which Mandela belonged also understood the link between their national conditions of oppression and global inequality. They fought for the reform of institutions of global governance to make them inclusive and reflective of our 21st-century world. Over the years, this campaign has become less visible and audible. Our country should engage the continent and the global south to resuscitate it for the sake of our future as members of the Wretched of the Earth.

The Mandela generation also taught us about the value of ethical and decisive leadership exercised in the interest of the people and humanity as a whole; not sectoral interests. Their lodestar was: how will my decision help to end racism, gender discrimination, poverty, inequality – within and between nations – unemployment, ignorance and disease? But alas, this is no longer the guide of many policymakers and leaders today.

Lastly, we must not withhold good from the deserving when we can. But as Mandela’s contemporary, the Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire put it: “True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish … charity.” For Freire, Mandela and their generation, true generosity was about immersing oneself in struggles to transform the world.

So, Mandela Day can – and must – be rescued from the annual charity ritual which, important as it is, is nevertheless hardly substantive or effective to destroy the causes which nourish charity.

*Pakati is executive mayor of the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality, chairperson of the South African Cities Network Council and deputy president of the South African Local Government Association.