We can return to Madiba's dream SA, but here's what needs to change

In the past decade, the indifference of many South African leaders has contributed to the decay of the state and of the democratic process. It is not too late to remedy that.

22 July 2018 - 00:00 By NJABULO NDEBELE

For Nelson Mandela there are countless anecdotes that individually capture some essence of him. My personal all-time favourite is one told by Richard Stengel, who collaborated with Madiba on his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom: "We were once on this aeroplane flight down in Natal, and it was a prop plane ... And as soon as he gets on ... he [Madiba] picks up a newspaper.
"He adores newspapers ... And so we were sitting on the plane ... and he is reading his newspaper, and we're about, I don't know, halfway there ... I was sitting right across from him, and he pointed out the window ... and I saw, to my great horror, that the propeller had stopped going around.
"And he said, very, very calmly, 'Richard, you might want to inform the pilot that the propeller isn't working.' I said, 'Yes, Madiba.' I walked to the front of the plane, and the pilot was well aware of it and he said, 'Go back and sit down. We've called the airport. They have the ambulances out there, and they're going to coat the runway with foam or whatever they do.'
"I went back and I told Madiba that, and he just, in that very solemn way, mouth sort of down, listened, and said, 'Yes.' And then picked up his newspaper and started reading. I was terrified, and the way I calmed myself was I looked at him. And he was as calm as could be ... The plane landed safely while Madiba retained his calm, unflustered expression all the way ... But as we stepped off the plane, Madiba took advantage of a quiet moment to make an unexpected confession: 'Man, I was scared up there.'"
This story shows Madiba the politician and Madiba the actor. He could enter the universe of all those he met: each and every one of them, at home and everywhere in the world, and be remembered universally for the genuineness of that moment. The actor in him was able to remove from the politician any semblance of guile at the same time as the politician gave to the actor the enablement of power to effect change.
In him we see an intriguing coexistence of power and beauty. It is a coexistence of attributes that he bequeathed us in the hope that 24 years after the birth of our constitutional democracy we would be more powerful and more beautiful.
There are many South Africans today in government, in their political parties, in their trade unions, in their churches, in their schools and their governing councils, in their sports associations, who all play important leadership roles, but who by wilful intent have caused the propeller of the aeroplane of state to stop going round in midair, and who will go on to read a newspaper, see themselves in it and pretend to be completely innocent.
Some will even call a press conference and then say nothing. These are the characters that actors get to play as the bad guy.
We see in Stengel's Madiba anecdote the ability in a leader to suppress inner fears in order to be brave for other people. That way, people sharing a genuinely dangerous and precarious moment with a leader draw courage from a leader in the appearance of courage displayed by him.He then owns up to that moment later by revealing the fear he experienced after the fact. That way he enables us to participate in the personal yet public dimensions of being human.
I call on all those among our leaders who wear the faces of innocence to stop being the bad guy, to step out of the aeroplane of state whose propeller they wilfully stopped, and after a safe landing emerge from that plane and say: "Man, I have been corrupt!" I am certain that Madiba would approve.
Let us remember that the South African constitution and the society envisioned by it places participative humanity and belonging at its core. Such would be the country of Madiba's dreams. In the 1990s, his dreams were shared by all the political parties, trade unions, business institutions, civil society organisations, communities and families throughout the land that agreed to work together in a constitutional democracy to achieve those dreams.
No one ever before had been head of state for all the people of South Africa. Tirelessly, he worked to ensure that our democracy would become strong.
Indeed, it was strong enough to survive the predations and devastations of the last 10 years. Too many South Africans in that decade have been left behind. Too many have become deeply alienated. Too many believe they have nothing to lose.
The new governing party administration has provided strong evidence of a determination to clean up and fix broken institutions, and restore the best hopes of a nation. But the demand from those left behind is for a fundamental transformation of our society. We give strength to our new president to rise to this challenge, with all his fellow citizens on his side.
Ten years ago progressive people around the world welcomed the election of a new president of the US, Barack Obama. A leader who sought to bring hope and renewed optimism to a democracy more than 200 years old.
To many, the Obama presidency offered, beyond the US, a dream of a global future that people could aspire to; one that inspired belief in human solidarities that could be forged across national, economic, social, and cultural divides. The realities of office, of course, tested him to the limit.Embedded histories and resilient structures of power proved to be formidable obstacles. Inclusivity as a democratic ideal had not become strong enough over the centuries of democracy to keep at bay racism, official forms of violence, and class-based insecurities that take on ethnic, racial, and nationalistic forms of expression.
To many observers, what we came to see in South Africa as state capture seemed mirrored in the US and other parts of the world by what we could call more accurately a "capture of democracy".
In this scenario, forces hostile to democracy ultimately attain legitimate electoral mandates only to subvert them. Public discourse shifts from the language of cohesion to that of validating membership in what could be called "political tribes".
The persistence of structural racism and of denialism in relation to received structural privilege deepens historic divides, as do the whims of "the market" structured through five centuries of global capitalism.
Consequently, multitudes of people across the world live below basic poverty levels and on the margins in every other sense.
• This is an edited version of Ndebele's opening reflections at the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture on Tuesday

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