SOFT SPOT: Nelson Mandela, with wife Gra�a Machel, and a young admirer during a month of birthday celebrations for the former president. Picture: Cara Viereckl

EXACTLY 23 years ago this week, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and, I’d imagined, taught us a few lessons.

We all knew then what the release meant. The weight of society’s expectations was on Mandela’s shoulders.

When he addressed us on the steps of the Cape Town City Hall, with Cyril Ramaphosa holding the microphone, there was no confusion what those subjected to subjugation for years expected of him and his generation.

When he said he returned not as a messiah but a servant of the people, it was in direct response to this weight.

This week, though, February 11 went quietly. No celebration or reflection on the historical importance of the day. For many, our memory of this day, as of the lessons Mandela is supposed to have taught us, has grown fainter.

The struggle against forgetting, it appears, is being lost – fast.

Giambattista Vico, considered a genealogist of modern thought, says we should look at memory as “the power of beginning to think, the power of origin”. Simply put, without memory, there is mental vacuum and no platform to initiate our thoughts.

So, why is it that many who pretend to love Mandela fail to learn basic lessons he is supposed to have taught us?

One of the lessons we are supposed to have learnt from Mandela is about the special place children must occupy in society. Today, toddlers are seen as subjects of sexual fantasies, with one aged five called a slut after being raped repeatedly. The Star named her Dikeledi, which, loosely translated, means “tears”, for her story brings us to tears. Failed by her guardians, failed by her community, Dikeledi was also failed by the criminal justice system, which did not take concrete steps to ensure her protection after her first rape. How soon we unlearn; how soon we forget. We get angry at this abuse, but our anger appears transient.

Remember how angry we were when a 17-year-old was raped, videotaped and passed on from one boy to another? Remember how politicians, as usual, condemned the rapists and told us how unacceptable this was when we already knew? There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul, Mandela taught us, than the way in which it treats its children. And yet when you ask what politicians can do other than condemn, you get stony silence. Three weeks later our memory fades. Life returns to “normal”. We get mad again when a 17-year-old is raped and mutilated. In three weeks, the new “normal” will return. How sad is this? Our memory fails to jolt us into necessary action.

When Mandela was released, we all knew that our education system was in a mess. The anger against Bantu education forced young kids in Soweto to their death on June 16, 1976. So, as we watched Mandela on the steps of the city hall, we had expectations that this system used to orchestrate inequality and confine black life to servitude would be done away with.

Today, meanwhile, the right of teachers to strike is more important than the kind of society we are trying to shape.

Teacher unions want to use legalistic arguments about why a service they provide can’t be essential.

Let us suffer no illusions: declaring it an essential service will not solve all our problems in education. It will not suddenly bring about classrooms where pupils no longer learn under trees or in mud rooms. It will not make teachers suddenly get interested in being at school, on time, teaching for eight hours every day.

It will not make teachers who are at sea about what they are supposed to teach suddenly become the masters of the content of their subjects. It will, sadly, not stop teachers from perving over and raping the children.

But, if declaring it an essential service gets teachers to spend a bit more time at school than is the case now, half of the battle would have been won.

All we need are leaders whose memory of that fateful day of the release of Mandela has not faded. We need these men and women to change the law to make it “legally” possible for teaching to be an essential service – knowing this is by no means a panacea.

With general elections a year away, and with the ANC depending on teachers to campaign for it, it’d be a waste of your lungs to hold your breath. The mission as understood 23 years ago when Mandela stood on those steps has been replaced by the daily exigencies of how we win the next election. Memory of the historical mission has faded. Lessons have been unlearnt.

Memory, John Ralston Saul reminds us, is “indeed an expression of context. And as such it is the key to our ability to act in a conscious manner, in a responsible manner, in an awareness of the other”.

So as we condemn children to perpetual servitude 19 years into democracy, as the apartheid regime did, we display a pathological lack of consciousness and a troubling irresponsibility.

One of the other things Mandela did when he returned from prison was to embark on a tour addressing thousands of supporters. He did not do this in town halls. He did not tee off press conferences about a “big announcement”. He went where it mattered the most in our politics if you want to win elections – the townships and rural areas.

So, when people get excited that Mamphela Ramphele has resigned as chairwoman of Gold Fields, when people get excited that she will address a press conference next week, when people wonder who the other intellectual hot shots behind her are, I despair, for the lesson has not been learnt.

If Ramphele is to be a factor, she would not need a press conference to announce her foray into politics. She would need a rally. Yes, a stadium full of nobodies, ordinary folks, nameless activists who have worked the unnamed streets in townships, who walked the rutted paths in villages to create excitement there about the new beginning. This, not a press conference, is what South Africa needs to challenge the ANC. Any other thing is to fail to learn from the person to whom we show great adulation and love.

The Jews, for example, use memory of Hitler’s madness to take concrete steps to ensure that history is not repeated. Why is it so hard for South Africans to take concrete steps to ensure that the horrors visited upon Dikeledi, Anene Booysen and Jackpot remain history? Why should the education of the African child depend on machinations between unions and politicians fighting for transient power?

Why should we get excited that a saviour will announce their intention to fight the behemoth that is the ANC through a press conference? Have we not any lessons to learn from those heady days of Mandela’s release? How quickly we forget. I despair. I despair.