30/03/2015. Public protector, Thuli Madonsela during a media briefing held at her offices in Hillcreast. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi

Unless courage becomes a deep-rooted habit we will continue to take one moral step forward and three moral steps backwards, writes Tinyiko Maluleke.

Johannesburg - In line with the national human resource strategy of the country, the Department of Higher Education and Training publishes biannually the list of the top 100 scarce skills in the land.

The list is an important tool for national planning and spending in education and training. As can be expected, engineering and finance qualifications dominated the last list of scarce skills, which was published in 2014.

But missing among the listed scarce skills is a skill that is as rare as it is needed and as obvious as it is invisible - even to the sophisticated methodologies of the list compilers. It is the skill called courage.

On April 24,1964 in his statement from the dock, sheer courage drove Nelson Mandela to say: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society, an ideal, which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” He could have been sentenced to death.

As a unique and special Robben Island prisoner, only his tremendous courage kept Robert Sobukwe sane as he was kept apart from all other prisoners - lest he poisoned their minds with his radical brand of politics.

Prison warders were forbidden from talking to him and special laws invented specifically to keep him and him alone indefinitely in jail.

At the rare sight of the lonesome Sobukwe, some Robben Island prisoners used to recite the words of the ancient Roman army general, Horatius, put to poetic prose by Thomas Macaulay: “And how can a man die better, than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of the Gods?”

According to Benjamin Pogrund, his biographer, Sobukwe would always respond to this recital by saying “Ewe mfondini!” (Yes, comrade!) Mandela and Sobukwe personified the courage to lead and to do so by example, at great personal cost.

Courageous leadership is a scarce commodity. There is currently a rise in populist demagoguery masquerading as leadership, here and abroad. After the burning down of nearly 30 schools in Vuwani, a prominent local leader begun his intervention with the words: “I support my people.” His people must have understood him, for more schools were burnt after those infamous words were uttered.

Imagine if on the occasion of the assassination of Chris Hani in 1993, Mandela had not courageously addressed the nation saying: “There must be no further loss of life at this tragic time.”

Imagine if, in a warped attempt to placate the radicals and bolster his popularity, Mandela had, in his message, not called for restraint and imagine if he had not gone further than pledging his support to the Hani family and the ANC.

Imagine what might have happened to us if, during February 1990, instead of courageously telling the warring factions in KwaZulu-Natal to “Take your guns, your knives and your pangas, and throw them into the sea,” Mandela, in an attempt to endear himself to the crowd, had extolled the virtues of the barrel of the gun and reminisced about his military training.

Imagine if instead of saying “You are either alive and proud, or you are dead” Steve Biko had promoted fear and what he called “sheepish timidity”.

Imagine where we might have been as a people if Biko had been too scared to develop and espouse the Black Consciousness philosophy. Imagine where this country might be if Biko had not urged us to “march forth with courage and determination” so that we may be “in a position to bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible - a more human face”.

That said, moral courage must not be confined to politics and political actors. So, how and where else do we find courage? How shall we define courage?

Sometimes courage comes to us in the shape of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela who instead of joining those who look the other way, in gratitude for or in anticipation of patronage, decided to speak truth to power. Courage is a judiciary that dispenses justice without fear or favour such as we witnessed when the Constitutional Court ruled on the Nkandla saga.

When Mtutuzeli Nyoka’s conscience compels him to confront corruption in the sport of cricket, leading him to clash with and lose his childhood friend and bosom buddy, Gerald Majola, then we have every reason to suspect that courage was invoked.

Courage comes to us in the form of a rape and murder survivor called Alison Botha who, after she was left by the roadside breathing through the hole in her slit throat, holding the contents of her slashed stomach in her hands, she crawled back to life, on a lonely road outside Port Elizabeth.

Courage is Moss Phakoe, the ANC councillor gunned down in 2009 in Rustenburg for blowing the whistle on corruption in the Rustenburg municipality.

Courage is Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Radebe, Wild-Coast anti-mining activist, into whose body was pumped eight bullets, earlier this year, by “unknown gunmen” in the dead of night.

His crime? Daring to oppose the plans of an Australian mining company and its local subsidiary to mine titanium in the Xolobeni coastal dunes.

Courage is Andries Tatane of Ficksburg and the Marikana miners whose killing was televised live, for demanding the rights promised and enshrined in our constitution.

Courage is the South African pupils who risked everything in June 1976, so that future generations might have a better life.

According to Thomas Acquinas, courage has more to do with resilience than it has to do with attack. According to him courage is the ultimate inner strength, a strength of character. Courage is, as Mandela defined it, not the absence of fear but the triumph over it.

The truly courageous are not fearless, they are fearful and fully aware of the dangers that lurk, but they do what needs to be done.

So, how come our vanguard liberation movement, the ANC, the party of Mandela, often knows what is wrong and what needs to be done but appears to lack the courage to do what needs to be done and do it consistently?

In light of the web of subterfuge that has constantly come from the likes of ministers Thulas Nxesi and Nathi Nhleko over Nkandla, where is the woman and the man with the courage to speak straight? Where have all the courageous men and women gone? Have we all been conquered by fear?

Are the theatrical and violent parliamentary antics we have been forced to witness over the past two years, our best and remaining acts of courage? When did we become so bereft of courage that we have to use the schooling and futures of our children as a means of negotiating our short term material gains?

How have we, as a people, become so cowardly that we vent our anger and mete out our brutal violence on the softest of targets - libraries, clinics, black foreign nationals, schools, children, LGBTI communities and women? Has the Boko Haram philosophy of burning down schools become the most revolutionary act of our times?

Maya Angelou has suggested that courage is a cultivated virtue, one that is gradually acquired. Can courage also be unlearned? We, as a people, seem to be succeeding exceedingly in our disastrous quest to unlearn our former courage.

Angelou also noted that without courage you cannot practice any other virtue consistently.

To be consistently just, fair, truthful and ethical one needs courage, not once and for all, but regularly, constantly and even daily. Unless courage becomes a deep-rooted habit we will continue to take one moral step forward and three moral steps backwards.

For its development South Africa needs the cultivation and acquisition of all the skills in our national register of scarce skills. However, care must be taken that we do not end up a nation of spineless educated fools.

* Maluleke is a Professor at the University of Pretoria. He writes in his personal capacity. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTinyiko

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent