By the time you read this piece, one of the few world leaders to still make a lot of sense when he opens his mouth, former US president Barack Obama, would have addressed a crowd of some 14 000 people – including our own president, Cyril Ramaphosa, at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg.
I would also have been in that crowd. At the time of writing, I’m not sure what he would have spoken about, other than what Mandela meant to him and many others out there. But there are a number of things I would have suggested to add to that speech, were I part of the team helping him to put it together – things we need to hear over and over again.
The need to serve
Mandela fever is upon us. Newspaper pages are filled with eulogies written by people who lived, worked or fought alongside the great man. Television screens repeat documentaries telling stories of others who remember his words, actions and wisdom.
We should hope that the many present-day revisionists, either genuinely ignorant of the momentous role played by Mandela at the dawn of our democracy, or simply out to opportunistically rewrite the part he played for their own political expediency, will take a moment to sit back, read, watch, listen and learn.
I hope Obama will repeat part of what he said back in July 2009, when he addressed the Ghanaian parliament. He referred to the importance of independent democratic institutions in Africa. Not strong men, or strong women, if you will.
That message is as relevant now as it was then. While many African countries have institutions that are democratic in name only – because where they exist they are often captured by strong men or women in power, who appoint their leaders to remotely control them – others, like us in South Africa, do have such institutions.
But we should know by now that having the institutions alone is not enough.
The African National Congress and former president Jacob Zuma demonstrated amply, over the past ten years, that a world-celebrated and progressive Constitution with, attached to it, a Bill of Rights, are not sufficient guarantors of the values and freedoms enshrined in them if the wrong people are anointed to lead and manage key state institutions. They have shown that having such fine founding documents still require political will and ethical leadership driven only by the need to serve.
Importantly, and we should probably thank Zuma and the ANC for this, they have shown us that the system of checks and balances we have in place is wholly inadequate. It can be breached and the institutions rendered useless.
Something must change
There is a need – that I haven’t heard any existing political parties addressing specifically – to roll out a deliberate risk/weakness analysis of the current checks and balances we have in our system.
Given the relatively easy way Zuma had with them, shielded by the ANC, surely something needs to change to make sure that none of it is ever perpetrated again, either by the ANC or others already showing Mugabe tendencies even before they are elected?
This might be a bit of a stretch, but I also hope Obama pays homage to the many whistle blowers, investigative journalists, independent media and ordinary South Africans who – no doubt at least partly inspired by Mandela’s endless fight for social justice – did their best to investigate, expose and speak truth to power through street pickets and peaceful protests.
They looked the devil in the eyes, a constant and fearless reminder of the sacrifices people like Mandela and others had to make in order for South Africa to shed the yoke of its inhumane apartheid past to embark on a path to healing, unity and potential leadership.
Till it sinks in
Obama should say these things because he can. He should also say them because President Ramaphosa and the party he leads need to hear them.
They must hear them over and over, again from Obama and from us, because much work remains for the vestiges of state capture to be taken out of our system, and for the ideals Mandela lived and fought for to be realised – for current and future generations of South Africans and humanity.
Vestiges of state capture remain imbedded in influential positions of power, despite the slow grinding wheels of justice having begun to turn. We should not be fooled; we should remain vigilant and keep insisting on the South Africa we signed up for, at the dawn of our democracy.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, specifically, needs to hear these things because he will need South Africans to back him in the event that the vestiges of state power still active in government, including his Cabinet, and ANC leadership – afraid of being called to account for their actions in our courts one day – try to sabotage his seemingly genuine drive to clean up the state.
If Ramaphosa has enemies to fear, such enemies are not outside the ANC and government.
So, as we remember the life of former president Mandela and try to live by the ideals he fought and suffered for, let us not stop at shallow speeches and expensive jamborees that will mean nothing, if not accompanied by a genuine drive to look into the mirror and acknowledge what we have become, following his departure.
Mandela laid the foundation; will Ramaphosa be the next South African president to build upon it and be quoted fondly, after he leaves power one day? Or will we always have to go back all the way to Mandela for leadership reference, because presidents who come after him consistently fail to make us feel proud to be the people Mandela would have wanted us to be – beautiful, progressive, and united in our diversity?