The late former president, Nelson Mandela. Picture: REUTERS
The late former president, Nelson Mandela. Picture: REUTERS

International Nelson Mandela Day has been a double-edged sword for me for some time. On the one hand it is always a day of celebration during which we honour a man who was larger than life by stepping into his seven minutes to keep his dream of equality and fairness alive — hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder.

On the other hand it has been a day of sadness, anger and disillusion, and this year is no exception. Over the past years various elements have done their best to gnaw away at what Mandela stood for and what he helped build. Take the widespread looting and public violence which has cost the country dearly in terms of human life and economic losses — more than we can ever comprehend.

Initially I wanted to pen a piece about that and the reasons behind the thuggery, which in my opinion is not and has never been Zuma’s incarceration. Zuma’s jailing was the short fuse of a large, complex time bomb on which we have been sitting for quite some time — one filled with an explosive combination of poverty, sheer hunger, unemployment, anger, and hollowed-out government institutions such as our intelligence system and police.

The piece I had in mind no doubt would have made for a catchy headline, full of disbelief, bitterness, cynicism, and a dash of sarcasm. However, writing such a piece wouldn’t have made a difference, besides perhaps feeling a little lighter in my own mind. It would have also gone against what Mandela stood for. After all, Madiba was a man who always looked ahead and beyond the challenges he and the country were facing at any point. That is how he survived 27 years in jail and managed to avoid a civil war, for starters. This truly is something we all can learn a great deal about, especially when our world is burning.

Sure, we must and should never lose sight of the wrongs and injustices our beloved nation is subjected to, including this week’s events, and we mustn’t downplay them either. That said, we shouldn’t reject and downplay the good that has transpired. The one, after all, doesn’t cancel out the other.      

One of the things we should celebrate is the exceptional leadership and togetherness some communities have shown over the past week. As thugs looted their way across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, people from all walks of life formed human chains around homes and businesses. As malls and businesses went up in flames they banded together, shoulder to shoulder, to prevent rioters from destroying what they and their neighbours had built, rising to leadership in a true Madiba fashion. Some collected nappies and formula to distribute to women with small children, while others set up soup kitchens and offered to help affected businesses clean up the damage.  

This type of selfless leadership has always been prevalent in our society. Take Linda Twala from Alexandra. Born in 1944 he has dedicated his entire life to serving people, from preventing the township he called home from being destroyed by the apartheid regime to starting the Alexandra Society for the Care and Welfare of the Aged and Disabled Persons and the Phuthaditjhaba Community Centre.

I have seen how this godfather of the elderly, an ex-MK fighter, is rising to the challenge of providing food, shelter, and most of all, dignity and kindness to society’s most vulnerable and destitute. Recently I spent the night at his home and was amazed at the sheer number of people who were welcomed at all hours in his home to receive something to eat, warmth, kindness and encouragement.

There is more that should fill our hearts with hope. Despite the destruction that raged through our streets, our vaccination campaign against Covid-19 managed to keep its momentum. Today our army of healthcare workers is vaccinating close to 200,000 people per day, up from 20,000 per day in the first week of last month. In addition, the number of fully vaccinated South Africans has doubled over the past week. A weekly or even monthly doubling of this figure could push us towards herd immunity and thus a new normal within the next few months.

Our judiciary is worth celebrating too. Thanks to our courts and the steadfastness of other role players, including former public protector Thuli Madonsela, Jacob Zuma is in jail for undermining the very democratic principles he signed up for and agreed to uphold when he took the oath in 2008.

We mustn’t lose sight of this. Instead, we should actively choose to use the positive that transpired this week to, hand-in-hand and shoulder-to-shoulder, reshape our country’s future and narrative from the ground up. It won’t be easy, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

As Mandela wrote in his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom: “Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lies defeat and death.”

• Lubner is CEO of NGO Afrika Tikkun.

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