The best of times have become the worst of times

The writer says looking back after 33 years since Mandela’s release, the memory of his 27 years in jail have faded and all that people remember now is how everything he stood for – while in jail – has gone wrong. Picture: Theana Calitz-Nelson Mandela Foundation

The writer says looking back after 33 years since Mandela’s release, the memory of his 27 years in jail have faded and all that people remember now is how everything he stood for – while in jail – has gone wrong. Picture: Theana Calitz-Nelson Mandela Foundation

Published Apr 12, 2023


Sandile Memela

Pretoria - The past 29 years were supposed to mark the beginning of the best of times for the people of South Africa, especially Africans.

But it has turned out to be the worst of times in more than 350 years of relentless struggle for self-determination.

First, the best of times were supposed to begin with the release of Nelson Mandela following 27 years of unjustifiable imprisonment. Second, this was to be bolstered by the unbanning of the so-called liberation movement.

Finally, the return of the exiles was to be the highest point of the culmination of the Struggle.

On the first point, Mandela was released 33 years ago, in February 1990.

Looking back after 33 years since Mandela’s release, the memory of his 27 years in jail have faded. All that people remember now is how everything he stood for – while in jail – has gone wrong.

It is very difficult to attach a special significance to the memory of his inauguration that saw most important leaders in the world descend on the Union Buildings in Pretoria on May  10, 1994. Now, people who attend Freedom Day celebrations have to be provided with free bus transport. They do not come in taxis, buses, trains or on foot.

The Mandela Magic, his Rainbow Nation dream for a just and equal society, has exploded into a mirage, except his people vote every five years.

The supremacist patriarchal capitalist economic system of white domination that Mandela fought against throughout his life of political activism is still firmly in place.

In fact, he is perceived and accused of turning his back on the promise of nationalisation and demands of the return of the land, to be seen as a protector and preserver of a ruthless and inhumane economic system.

Second, the unbanning of the liberation movement was supposed to mark a tremendous victory that would have seen the most principled, self-sacrificing and committed leadership return to the motherland.

They would have come back to work together, united by a common vision to liberate the people of South Africa. They would transcend man-made differences based on ideology, race or political affiliation.

These were men and women willing to lay down their lives for the love of their people, especially the oppressed and exploited. This was the leadership that should have been ready to serve without expecting anything in return. Their dream was to see justice and equality reign supreme in their beloved land.

But today, it has become a challenge to find this calibre of person. They are wrecked by internal strife. Even those who spent decades in jails like Robben Island now lack the courage to stand up for principle, truth and commitment. Those who do are ignored or labelled. Worse, it is the fear of losing out on benefits that imprisons them in silence.

The generalisation and words spoken about former freedom fighters now are that they have turned out to be selfish, greedy, and looking out for their individual interests and those of their friends and families. They have been condemned and cursed for blatant displays of conspicuous consumption, crime and corruption.

Finally, the return of exiles was supposed to solidify the unity of purpose with those who stayed behind to wage the internal battle against apartheid.

The exiles were unlike the prodigal son who returned after he squandered his father’s possessions and wealth.

Instead, these were men and women who were coming back to be acknowledged and recognised for their spirit of selflessness. They were people who left home not to save their own lives or enrich their families, but to fight for democracy and freedom.

They were to be thanked for all the remaining years of their lives, to be acknowledged as examples of what it means to love one’s country.

For the lucky ones, monuments would be built to celebrate and remember their heroic actions.

There would be works of art and heritage that would capture and reflect their spirit of what it means to be a selfless and sacrificing leader willing to lay down one’s life out of principle and conviction.

But now, these men and women are pointed to with accusing fingers. Instead of being embraced by their people, they ride in bullet-proof cars, and are always surrounded by armed bodyguards. The intuitive connections with their families and communities have been destroyed. Something in the programme of unity of action and solidarity has died.

Worse, they have turned their own guns against each other as they fight for power, position and access to state resources.

It was supposed to be two decades that marked the beginning of the political fulfilment of the hopes and aspirations of the African majority. But the people are restless, again.

They do not believe that voting in elections once in five years and living off grants is the be-all-and-end-all of freedom. They say the Struggle was not about the enrichment of a few black elites.

The past three decades marked the beginning of the worst of times because it seems the people’s right to self-determination – at an individual and collective level – has not been fulfilled. Their dignity has not been restored.

It is true that democracy has dawned. But the marginalised say the Struggle is ongoing.

The African majority – except for the elite that has become part of the economic system which they fought against – continue to battle poverty, unemployment and exploitation.

Their self-respect and dignity is still being stolen from them. They are not in charge of their lives. They are caught in the twin grasps of supremacist economic exploitation and landlessness. What they have since come to believe is that their leaders have been poisoned.

The principles and convictions of the former exiles and the oldest liberation movement have been polluted. The noble history of the Struggle and the legacy of Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada, among others, have almost disappeared.

The African majority that were supposed to be the beneficiaries of the Struggle have been degraded and dehumanised. They cannot do anything that shows human agency and self-determination in their lives. They suffer from entitlement and are entirely dependent on social grants and political connections.

It is the worst of times that were supposed to be the best of times.

Greed, selfishness and putting one’s individual interests first have become the new norm. Worse, self-destruction and turning against your own comrades have become the new culture as people, especially former comrades, fight for positions and power.

Self-destructive infighting, internecine war, disregard for the rule of law, disregard of best practice, dysfunctional organisations and state entities, blatant crime and corruption seem to be the order of the day.

What was supposed to be the best of times that brought intellectual clarity and unity of purpose has ushered in a period of moral bankruptcy, where South Africa belongs to all those who wish to help themselves to its riches.

What makes things worse is that this has opened the eyes of even the blind to pay more attention to what leaders do, and not to what they say. This has pained and traumatised the people. It has dislocated them psychologically and politically.

Everyone, high and low, now knows that the past 29 years should have been the best of times that brought multiple blessings to the people, especially the African majority. But there is too much human suffering.

For example, mothers with babies on their backs are beggars at street corners.

The people say there is worse suffering than they endured under apartheid. It makes no difference black people are in power.

Perhaps it is the best of times because the people now understand the relationship between cause and effect. They seem to understand that Mandela is now dead and there will be no Second Coming.

The people themselves must fill this gap, this void of leadership.

It is now the best of times because the people are now free to explore their options and try previously unexplored places in their hearts and minds.

The worst of times are now poised to turn into the best of times because it is inevitable that the people will comprehend in order to survive that freedom for only some is freedom for none. What the past 24 years have taught people is that it is every person for themselves now.

The best thing about this harsh lesson is that it may motivate and encourage people to take full responsibility for everything that happens in their lives. It is the result of their thoughts, decisions, choices and attitudes.

To paraphrase Steve Biko, the people are “on their own”. It is all about self-determination – at an individual and collective level.

* Memela is a writer, cultural critic and public servant. He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.

Pretoria News