Sello Hatang summited Kilimanjaro yesterday - for the fourth time. This time he didn’t have his then 10-year-old son, Tshego, with him, he didn’t have to give up his jacket to keep him warm, or the still fresh grief of losing his mother-in-law. He still had his back to worry him though.
He pushed through last year, he didn’t notice the freezing cold or the gale force winds on the summit or his own excruciating pain because he was so focused.
This year would be different, he told the Saturday Star before he left.
Hatang, the chief executive officer of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, pledged to climb Africa’s highest point five times in a row, when he was an Archbishop Tutu fellow, in 2014. He is one of the most high-profile ambassadors of the annual Trek4Mandela, which is now in its eighth year.
The annual climb which, since last year, has had two separate expeditions - one summiting on Nelson Mandela’s birthday and the other on Women’s Day - is to combat the stigma of menstruation, especially among poor schoolgirls who can neither afford sanitary towels nor have access to them, and miss school as a result.
Hatang knows all about poverty, he grew up as one of six siblings, in a single parent household, often having to make do with a spoon of sugar in a cup of hot water in lieu of supper.
“I was very fortunate to get to university and I remember phoning home from one of those tickey boxes in a container, pleading with my mom for money for books, which of course she didn’t have.
“When I finished the call, I owed the phone booth operator R30 for the call, but I only had R5 on me. He made me surrender my socks and shoes and I had to walk back to my township lodgings barefoot to find the money I owed him, to get them back.
“It was humiliating, poverty does that.”
Hatang’s mother lost four of her children. Only Sello and his sister, Nnono, remain. Hatang has never forgotten his roots - he climbs, he says, not just to raise awareness for South Africa’s girl children, but to relearn the vital lessons of compassion and care.
“I have to feel the pain, the pinch in my boots, reminding me of the things that my daughter has access too but thousands of other girl children don’t. I climb to remember to care, as we say in Setswana: ‘Matlo go sha mabapi’ (when my neighbour’s house burns, it must feel like my house is burning). I climb so that I can say like ntate Eric Molobi when he went to see the body of (June 76 hero leader) ntate Onkgopotse Tiro, in a Botswana morgue, after he’d been assassinated by apartheid regime and refused to take tranquilisers beforehand because he wanted to feel the pain that Tiro had endured.
“The mountain helps me feel that pain that I owe people back home, to lift them up as we rise.”
He had a lot to remember as he made the slow painful trudge, up to Gilman’s Peak from Kibo, in the early hours of yesterday morning and then onwards and upward in the thin, oxygen poor air to Uhuru Peak.
“Poverty and, more specifically, food insecurity, has been close to his heart all year, as he has overseen the Mandela centenary commemorations across the world.
“My wife, Thembi, is a teacher, she comes home every night with stories that could depress the hell out of us, but instead we try our level best to be inspired by the children who refuse to give up, to give them hope, instead, that tomorrow will be better than today,” he says.
“I was in eSwatini recently, driving along the road, and stopped to give a 10-year-old a lift. This youngster was making his way down the dusty road pushing his wire car on the way to school. He got in and left it at the roadside. We asked him why, and he said he’d get it when he returned home after school.
“Will he still believe in the essential goodness of humanity when he is 18, 25 or 40? It is incumbent on us to restore the belief that people are good like the child, like Madiba, believes - but to do that we need to hold people accountable.
“I hope the mountain will give me that insight, as I make my way down. We have to find ways of giving hope to those whose hope is dwindling.”
Another issue that has vexed him in the last couple of months, has been the steady ripping of South Africa’s social fabric; the identity politics, the name calling and blame games, and the overwhelming sense of pity that people seem to have enveloped themselves in - made even worse by Stats SA’s most recent unemployment figures.
“Let’s forget about this issue of spies and who might have betrayed who during apartheid, put a process in place to deal with that but don’t let it distract us from the painful process of building this country and focusing on what young people need today.”
Hatang could have wallowed in pity - and pain - but has chosen not to.
“Last year, when I came down from Kilimanjaro, I was diagnosed with a degenerative bone disorder, affecting my lower back, as well as the early onset of arthritis.
“I could have chosen to sit at home pitying myself but, instead, I’ve gone back up the mountain. That’s where I think South Africa is struggling - there’s too much pity instead of getting on with it.”
Singer Johnny Clegg’s death was another wake-up call.
“We have to reach a point, as a nation, where we honour those who have passed on, not in words but with action - but we live in an age where colour matters more than character, accolades matter more than the hard work we have to put in, and we all want rewards before service.
“When I first climbed Kilimanjaro, Clegg’s music was on my personal playlist. It would be again this time, except when I sang Asimbonanga (We have not seen him), I will be singing Simbonile - we saw him, we saw what he was doing, building a country that’s united by colour and diversity, not one that makes it a point of defeat.
“Johnny Clegg played his part, now it’s our turn. We need to focus beyond our own pain to do what is right, to build this country of our dreams.
“We have so much land in Africa, so much talent, let’s find ways of making sure no one goes to bed hungry.”
The Trek4Mandela expedition arrives back in South Africa tomorrow.