In many moments of personal crisis and at times of despair I have found great solace in turning my thoughts to what my grandfather President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela would have done or advised me to do.
We are at such a crossroads where on the eve of Nelson Mandela International Day on July 18, 2021 we would normally be preparing for a global outpouring of acts of kindness and individual and collective acts of philanthropy and extraordinary acts of altruism and generosity. Instead, we sit with our heads buried in our hands as the fires of public violence, looting and criminality flare-up, threatening to ensnare all of us into a spiral of fear, hopelessness and despair.
Some have labelled this as Zuma riots, and to be fair, most of the blame for this position is not entirely misplaced, as the alleged irresponsible calls from some quarters in KwaZulu-Natal has literally set light to the tinder box and stoked a fire that has the potential to incinerate us all.
Yet others have blamed the endemic poverty, burgeoning unemployment and ever-growing inequality that characterises the life of the majority of South Africans. This, too, is a correct summation of the moment that we find ourselves engulfed in.
Of course, there are those, especially in the opposition ranks, who would insinuate that this incendiary crisis is the sole outcome and doing of an ANC in crisis and at war with itself. This too, I would not entirely dismiss, regardless of the rank political opportunism that lurks in its shadows.
To be brutally honest, we have had these moments of incendiary insanity and schism threaten our democracy and our movement at no less than three intervals since the dawn of democracy. This has resulted in the formation of splinter parties hell-bent on reading the ANC’s obituary and presenting themselves as the nouveaux sauveurs, rescuing South Africa from the complex quagmire inherited at the birth of our nascent democracy. To borrow an Amilcar Cabral truism- they tell many lies and promise too many easy victories. This crisis unfolding right before our eyes, too, demands brutal honesty.
I am tempted to deny that there is any implosion in the ANC and vehemently argue that the current crisis can not be laid squarely at our door. The eternal optimist in me jumps up in outrage that such a preposterous conclusion could even be made; implosion? Never! This is just another UDM, COPE and EFF moment in which the afterbirth of bitter leadership struggles will fade into gradual irrelevance, or like the irreverent red berets keep barking nuisance insults and snapping at our ankles.
Before I heed Madiba tapping on my shoulder and leaning over to whisper in my ear, proffering some rabbit out of the hat wisdom in this moment of national crisis, I feel compelled to address the conspiracy theorists in our ranks. Don't get me wrong, even he cautioned in 1997 just three years into his Presidency at the ANC's National Elective Conference in Mafikeng: "defenders of apartheid privilege continue to sustain a conviction that an opportunity will emerge in future, when they can activate this counter-insurgency machinery, to impose an agenda on South African society which would limit the possibilities of the democratic order to such an extent that it would not be able to create a society of equality, that would be rid of the legacy of apartheid."
He went on to characterise the features of this counter-insurgency as..."the weakening of the ANC and its allies; the use of crime to render the country ungovernable; the subversion of the economy; and the erosion of the confidence of both our people and the rest of the world in our capacity both to govern and to achieve our goals of reconstruction and development." I will resist the temptation to say that we have arrived at such a moment.
Before I heed Nkosi Dalibhunga's unrelenting tap on my shoulder or render myself guilty of fiddling while Rome burns, we cannot with a straight face condemn looters without acknowledging the complicity of those in our ranks found guilty of corruption and looting state coffers and their partners in crime in the private sector who have shamelessly denied our people much needed resources and deprived them of more effective service delivery. This is not to embolden criminals and looters or provide any justification for their actions. They are equally reprehensible and the beneficiaries of both crimes have taken a deep dig at undermining our democracy and are equally deserving of the full might of the law.
Our peaceful transition to democracy was President Mandela's lodestar, and was premised on nation-building, national reconciliation and social cohesion, all of which are now under severe threat as tempers flare in the face of loss of property, destruction of livelihoods and the imperative of self-preservation.
Just beneath the surface of the violence and looting lies a powder-keg that can self-destruct into the widening of the race and reconciliation issues that are the unfinished business of our rainbow nation. Layered beneath that is the dynamite triple burden of poverty, unemployment and inequality that remains racially skewed and characterises the daily existence of the majority of South Africans. Statistics aside, we must act in haste, and with greater urgency or we will be united in a zero-sum game that will leave in its wake a tragedy of Armageddon proportions.
I repeat my call to our President Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa to intervene with greater urgency and intensity. The action must measure up to the gravity of the situation, or be dismissed as ineffectual and too little too late. I remind myself why it has always been an open secret that you were Madiba's preferred candidate to succeed him as President, and why now he finally gets my attention and I listen intently to him say: "be calm and all around you will be calm. Be calm even in the midst of raging flames. Be as calm as Abraham in Nimrod's gigantic cauldron of fire. Fire be calm and tranquil." Great crises are quelled not by hurling exploding Molotovs, but by appealing to that which is best in each of us.
As the gruesome images from Gauteng, KZN and Mpumalanga flash across my Whatsapp, I recall his condemnation of the Boipatong and Bisho massacres: "No power on this earth can destroy the thirst for human dignity. Our land cries out for peace. We will only achieve it through adherence to democratic principles and respect for the rights of all. This is the challenge that faces all South Africans.” And his warning, “We dare not fail.”
I hear him again on the eve of Chris Hani's murder: "With all the authority at my command, I therefore appeal to all our people to remain calm and to honour the memory of Chris Hani by remaining a disciplined force for peace." Will we remain calm and a disciplined force for peace again? Will we rise to the challenge again? Shall we unite in prayer and vigil again and be led by that which is best in us? Shall we unite in our efforts to restore our moral compass? Shall we finally find the true north and work together to create a national compact to rid our beautiful country of endemic poverty, inequality and unemployment?
In the midst of the madness of the past few days someone said that the looting and violence will only stop when there is nothing left to loot. I beg to differ. The looting will only stop when ordinary South Africans realise that it was not Nkosi Dalibhunga that made us great. It was our collective belief in our ability to make better choices. I don’t believe he was wrong when he said: "and I smiled, because every day ordinary South Africans are making a difference.” Let us make a difference and be great again.
* Zwelivelile "Mandla" Mandela, MP is the tribal chief of the Mvezo Traditional Council and the grandson of Nelson Mandela.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.