Nelson Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, and You and Me

I often wonder, as a young leader and activist, what fuelled the spirit of activism and active citizenry in the generation of heroes like Mama Albertina Sisulu and Nelson Mandela. What factors and influences make up the calibres of such fearless and selfless leaders? What is it about Mama Sisulu’s upbringing, exposure to society and career as a nurse that made her take a stand and play an active part in the liberation struggle? What is it about the young lawyer in Madiba that brought him to believe in the ideals of a democratic and non-racial society and fight to see these ideals come true?

It is a truism that prior to 1994, the levers of power for the state were exclusively and firmly in the hands of whites. The leadership of all constituent state structures, including the executive, legislature and the judiciary, was all white. The arrival of the Dutch Indian Company in 1652, to find a resting station at the Cape under Jan van Riebeeck, marked the beginning of the process of land dispossession and segregation by white colonialists in South Africa. During both the 18th and 19th centuries, the operation of removing and relocating black people from their land became the order of the day with far-reaching consequences. By the late 19th century, the white settlers had occupied and controlled most of what is today the Republic of South Africa. Of course, the net effect of all this is that the whites had projected themselves as the sole gatekeepers of the Republic and all its resources and wealth. They determined the living spaces, academic standards, and employment levels for black people in the country. Regrettably, this segregation and exclusion resulted in South Africa, a home of birth and heritage for most black people, becoming a ‘white enclave – a preserve for the whites’.

The legacy of colonialism and apartheid left South Africa a society divided by class and race. The generation of Mama Sisulu and Madiba could not leave this harsh and violent reality unchallenged. Like millions of other South Africans, they too were born in an unequal society with unequal opportunities. Rejecting the status quo became a means to echo the voices of the voiceless and marginalised black majority. Thus, Madiba’s activism and Mama Sisulu’s resistance strongly featured as a reaction to the oppression, discrimination and deprivation wreaked by the apartheid government on black people. The legacies of Mandela and Sisulu were born out of the pain, suffering and marginalisation endured by black people. They assumed vanguard positions in the opposition politics, when it was unfavourable to do so, to fight for the rights of black people and the ideals of a free society.

The question today is whether our political emancipation since 1994 has brought about positive and real change in a society divided by class and race? It would be profoundly dishonest to discount the gains made since the advent of our democracy. From a political and governance standpoint, the evidence of transformation cannot be disputed. The generation of Madiba achieved one of its core missions, which is vesting the power to decide the government of the day to the citizens; expanding the right to vote to all. Thus, 1994 gave South Africa its first black President elected in terms of a new order and interim Constitution. In many ways than one, this was a new era filled with new promises and vision for an egalitarian society; a society based on dignity, equality, freedom and economic justice.

The painful truth, nonetheless, is that South Africa remains the most unequal society in the world according to a recent report by the World Bank. These are indicators that the economic programmes and structural constructs of the apartheid regime have its long-lasting legacy despite the 1994 regime change. Hlumelo Biko conscientiously describes South Africa as a society of two different and unequal communities; the white community which is made up of the few who benefited from the apartheid regime and the black community which consists of the poor majority who are still severely wounded by the injustices of our past. Perhaps this reality exposes the raw deal of our negotiated democracy. It was a compromised settlement, a grand illusion of freedom.

However, not all is doomed and gloomed. Each generation must find its purpose, fulfil it or betray it. The youth of today must take up the cudgels to fight these fierce battles for a more just and equal society. The Madiba and Sisulu generation played their role in the context of their struggle, irrespective whether we believe more could have been done. What happens between now and the next coming 20 years is dependent on you and me, the current youth of leaders. Incidentally, since the advent of our democracy, we have embarked, as a country, on a journey to remodel our society from an ugly violent society to a new and egalitarian society. Each of us has an important role to play in shaping this new South Africa.

What will your role be?

Published via ACTIVATE! Change Drivers. ACTIVATE! Change Drivers is a youth leadership network of over 2 500 members and counting. We are committed to making the ideas of young people into the tangible solutions they want to see in South Africa. Moreover, we realise that young people are already implementing a lot of solutions across the country and thus also commit to illuminate their work, making them visible as the true heroes they are. We do this by connecting young people who are doing similar things and giving exposure to young people who are making a difference in efforts to inspire and influence other young people to also become active citizens. We also create platforms where young people can provoke conversations on controversial issues in order to find innovative solutions.

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