Making SA great is a far better way to honour Madiba

19 February 2012 - 02:31 By Phylicia Oppelt

WHEN I heard that the Reserve Bank had put out an announcement about a Saturday press conference, my heart sank.

What could be so important that it required the president, the finance minister and the governor to be present only two days after the state of the nation address?

What were we supposed to think? Perhaps that Gill Marcus had tired of her job of running the bank? Was there finally going to be a definitive statement about the protracted shareholding issue?

Or would Pravin Gordhan announce a series of state interventions to stimulate economic growth before his February 22 budget speech?

The business wires ran with speculation and the social networks went amok, but government held firm until last Saturday afternoon for the "celebratory" news that Nelson Mandela would adorn every banknote in South Africa.

When I heard that bit of news I burst into laughter.

This is what the big announcement was about, this is the reason why the rand slipped 2% against the dollar between the notice of the press conference and the close of markets on Friday, and this is what gave cause to the speculation?

Don't get me wrong, my dismay was not directed at the gesture (although I have issues with that too), but with the poor communication from our nation's leaders.

Surely this gesture could have been used to open President Jacob Zuma's state of the nation address two days earlier? And surely someone could have warned him that calling a "presser" with the finance minister and the governor of the Reserve Bank for an issue of national importance was just asking for markets to get jittery?

But besides the ridiculousness of the way the announcement was handled, I felt as jittery as the markets about having a living former president on our banknotes.

Our currency is fine as it is - reflecting the Big Five and the industries that this country was built on. It shows what we are about.

Besides, as a colleague said, maybe we should at least keep that poor rhino on the notes for our children because this magnificent animal might not be around for much longer.

And while, on a very personal level, I owe Madiba immense gratitude for the sacrifices he made so that my life and those of my daughters are vastly different from those of my parents, I start cringing when I think about honouring the living in this way. It borders on a kind of adulation that makes me uncomfortable. It just does not sit right.

Writing in Business Day on Monday morning, columnist Tim Cohen expressed his discomfort about the banknotes. "We, of course, venerate Mandela, but should a living politician, very associated with one political party, really be on all the banknotes?

"To be honest, I think it's a bit banana republic."

Mandela has, of course, been on the R5 coins for some years now. Surely that is quite enough?

Besides, is this truly a fitting monument to Madiba, to whom this country owes an immense debt?

Take Robben Island, for instance. It has been turned into a museum, but has been the site of maladministration and the subject of contention. It should be the star of our heritage tourism - beyond being the site of a corny Valentine's Day mass wedding ritual apparently practised by couples from the Cape Flats.

Where are the liberation routes, the many sites of struggle that form the fabric of this country's past?

Little appears to be done to market an integrated history of South Africa. But what do we expect, when we can't even safeguard the artworks in our public galleries?

Several years ago, I visited Steve Biko's grave near King William's Town in the Eastern Cape.

It was neglected, but more than that, the area had become a drinking place for young men. With one eye on them and one eye on the grave of this father of our nation, I felt a distinct sense of unease. I left.

Two weeks before his 1993 assassination, Chris Hani said: "I think, finally, the ANC will have to fight a new enemy. That enemy would be another struggle to make freedom and democracy worthwhile to ordinary South Africans.

"Our biggest enemy would be what we do in the field of socioeconomic restructuring. Creation of jobs. Building of houses, schools, medical facilities, overhauling our education, eliminating illiteracy, building a society which cares, and fighting corruption and moving into the gravy train of using power, government position to enrich individuals.

"We must build a different culture in this country, different from Africa, different from the Nationalist Party. And that culture should be one of service to people."

By ensuring that South Africa becomes a dynamic, positive country for all who live in it will be the best memorial to Mandela, Hani and every other person who sacrificed their lives in order for us to have freedom.

Save the banknotes for the rhino.

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