Nelson Mandela casts his vote on April 27, 1994 in South Africa's first democratic elections. File photo: John Parkin

We stand to lose the gains made in our young democracy if we do not strive for renewal, writes Mcebisi Ndletyana.

“The time will come when our nation will honour the memory of all the sons, the daughters, the mothers, the fathers, the youth and the children who, by their thoughts and deeds, gave us the right to assert with pride that we are South Africans and that we are citizens of the world,” said Nelson Mandela as he began his address on May 24, 1994 opening the first non-racial parliament in South Africa’s history.

A few weeks earlier, South Africans had cast their votes in a historic election that marked both a break with the past and a new dawn – freedom!

Because he was born of a people who hadn’t been free for more than three centuries, the founding father thought it necessary to express himself on the meaning of freedom.

Freedom, Mandela believed, was not only an inalienable right for the living, but its attainment was also an honour to the dead.

In realising the full meaning of freedom, we wouldn’t only be coming into being as a humanity, but would also be paying tribute to those who had given their lives in exchange for the freedom of the living.

Among those whose death was a gnawing reminder of the absoluteness of freedom, Mandela told an admiring public, was Ingrid Jonker.

He explained: “In the midst of despair, she celebrated hope. Confronted with death, she asserted the beauty of life. In the dark days, when all seemed hopeless in our country, when many refused to hear her resonant voice, she took her own life.

“To her and others like her, we owe a debt to life itself. To her and others like her, we owe a commitment to the poor, the oppressed and the wretched and the despised.”

If Jonker showed the absoluteness of freedom by taking her own life, Vuyisile Mini epitomied courage that oozed from knowing that one’s death will yield freedom.

Sentenced to death on March 16, 1964 with his comrades, Zinalike Mkaba and Wilson Khayinga, Mini was not cowed by the thought of death.

On the day of his hanging, November 6, 1964, as he climbed up the 54 stairs that elevated him out of life to his death, instead of trembling, Mini broke out into song:

Nants’ indod’ emnyama, Verwoerd (Here comes a black man, Verwoerd)

Nants’ indod’ emnyama, Verwoerd (Here comes a black man, Verwoerd)

Basopa nants’ indod’ emnyama, Verwoerd (Watch out, here comes a black man, Verwoerd)

Basopa nants’ indod’ emnyama, Verwoerd (Watch out, here comes a black man, Verwoerd

Mini not only surrendered his life to the cause of freedom, but was emboldened by the very thought of the gift his death bequeathed the living.

That bequest was the memory of self-sacrifice, which would, in turn, inspire them never to accept oppression.

More than 13 years later, inspired by the memory of Mini and others like him, Steve Biko would summarise the meaning of death as follows: “You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can’t care anyway. And your method of death can itself be a politicising thing”.

Biko too would die at the hands of the apartheid state, beaten to death – on September 12, 1977 – by the police as he refused to acquiesce to their brutality.

Our freedom therefore was not only a realisation of self, but was a gift bestowed upon us.

In gaining that freedom we also incurred a debt to those who had brought it into being.

And repaying the debt only demanded that we honour the full promise of freedom.

In other words, on this day – the 20th anniversary of our freedom – as we examine how far we have honoured the promise of freedom, we’re judging ourselves against our own standards.

We ourselves, throughout the course of the anti-apartheid struggle, defined what freedom would mean.

Freedom didn’t mean being better than apartheid.

Apartheid was an aberration, not a measure of progress.

We were to strive, as Biko said, “to be the best that we can be”.

Have we, in the past 20 years, become the best that we can be?

Are we worthy descendants of our heroic ancestry?

Have we honoured the promise of freedom, to become a caring society?

The democratic republic has certainly sought to translate freedom into a better life for the underprivileged and vulnerable in our society.

Infants and pregnant women get free health care; pupils in poor neighbourhoods don’t pay school fees; indigent households get subsidised water, electricity and food parcels; and disabled people, orphans and single parents and the aged receive social grants.

We have truly striven to live up to the ideal of a caring society.

This impeccable achievement, however, is less a reflection of our continued self-sacrifice, but more a fulfillment of a promise.

We have not sacrificed much ourselves, but have simply used resources that are already available.

The size of our economy has made a caring society possible. But the pool of beneficiaries is limited. Rather than extend the frontiers of a better life, both private sector and political leaders are engaged in short-term pursuits that fulfill their individual wants.

Take the structure of our economy, for one. It suffers from a structural problem. We’re among the countries with the largest endowment of mineral resources, but have a disproportionately small industrial base.

In other words, we have resources to build a manufacturing sector, but have simply failed to do so. One of the reasons for this failure is the inability to agree on what needs to be done.

Recent suggestions by the ruling party that an export cap be imposed on certain strategic minerals in order to encourage beneficiation, have met with some resistance from the private sector.

Corporates see this as government meddling in what should be a free market, while the government berates them for lack of patriotism.

In the meantime, unemployment not only persists at a staggering level, but is also accompanied by inequality. Executives insist on hefty salaries, creating a massive income gap between themselves and their shop-floor workers.

Blacks have joined the middle and high-income ranks.

The majority of black people, however, remain trapped in poverty and unemployment. Inequality is still racially defined.

And the official opposition has pretty much endorsed racial inequality.

The DA, and the Democratic Party before it, positioned itself as a defender of white privilege.

This is how the DA gained the status of official opposition, attracting the most racist and conservatives white voters into its ranks.

The persistence of the race problem in South Africa has less to do with affirmative action and more with the failure of white society to appreciate the depth of social injustice inflicted by the past and the necessity for redress.

The DA encouraged this denialism with its initial denunciation of redress as reverse racism and its recent flip-flopping.

If the official opposition has failed to bring its historically white supporters to embrace racial redress, then the former liberators have lost their sense of mission.

Whereas in the past they would accent the collective good, today former anti-apartheid leaders have joined businesspeople to accumulate as much wealth as possible.

While pursuing wealth is fine outside of politics, it is corrosive if done within politics.

It has led to unethical behaviour, undermined public values and weakened public institutions.

Unethical behaviour is reflected through patronage politics in which politicians use their office as a bargaining chip to make money for themselves. They trade influence in exchange for kickbacks.

It’s common for business deals to contain a 10 percent cut for a politician and this happens throughout the three spheres of government. Service delivery has suffered as a consequence because contractors are either incompetent or, after paying a kickback, are left with an insufficient budget to complete their task.

The accenting of materialism over values has led to bitter power struggles.

Because they lack any scruples, these individual politicians employ any means necessary to ascend to positions of power.

The ruling party, especially, is riven with factions.

Talented individuals are driven out, to make way for others to loot state resources. Mediocrity is commonplace because loyalty has been prioritised over merit.

Some of these ills, however, were not entirely unexpected.

Any party dispenses patronage to its cadreship. The practice is even more common where cadres lack skills to gain employment elsewhere. In our case, however, cadre deployment seems to have gone haywire. Unqualified individuals were employed into strategic positions, and became hostile to professionals instead of tapping into their expertise. In many instances, not only were the cadres unqualified, but they also lacked a work ethic or an interest in self-improvement.

We’ve answered the call to imbue freedom with meaning.

Along the way, however, we got distracted and turned the focus inward on to our individual selves, away from the collective objective.

As a result, we haven’t stretched ourselves. Rather, we’ve settled for what circumstances allow.

Tackling today’s challenges, however, demands that we go beyond the usual. Today, let’s not only seek inspiration from the past, but also begin a process of renewal.

If we fail to imagine new ways of being, then the next decade will see an unraveling of a caring society.

* Mcebisi Ndletyana is head of the political economy faculty at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection.

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

Sunday Independent