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South Africans Celebrate Twenty Years of Freedom and Democracy: A Reflection on Nelson Mandela's Legacy

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Photo credit: Biography (Nelson Mandela)

Johannesburg -- This year South Africa commemorates the 20th anniversary of the attainment of freedom and democracy. The 27th of April is observed annually to celebrate South Africa's first non-racial democratic elections of 1994 which also marked the end of three hundred years of white minority rule and the establishment of a new government led by Nelson Mandela. During Nelson Mandela's inauguration speech on the 10th of May 1994, he told the gathered crowd "Never, never and never again, shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another." Sadly, Nelson Mandela passed away last year December but these words will forever be engraved in the hearts and minds of every individual in South Africa and beyond.

For months and months I have been pondering and paralyzed with fear as to how to address this topic and it took every living cell in me to make a decision. One night, as I endlessly tortured my brain and tried to convince myself by coming up with every excuse in the book on why I shouldn't be doing this; that I wasn't worthy of such writing, I hardly know South Africa that well to even structure a coherent sentence about its history, who am I to write about such a beautiful country? These were all the loud voices in my head that would not allow me to take a moment and listen to the silent voice that kept telling me that my story matters, my voice is a part of South Africa's legacy and that I also have the freedom to express my views and beliefs and also respect others because a lot of people lost their lives and blood was shed to afford me that freedom. What I was actually physically and mentally experiencing was fear at its best nature. I then decided to put my fears aside and reach deep down, at the gut of my soul to wholeheartedly allow my vulnerability to play around with words. The fear and doubt obviously didn't stop there as the nagging question of who am I to write about such a beautiful and sacred country's history kept popping like an annoying zit. Who am I to write about the 20 years of freedom and democracy in South Africa? That question began playing like a loud record and the answer is, why not.

South Africa is a sacred place, a land so near and dear to my heart. We are talking about a country that defeated an Apartheid regime with forgiveness and selflessness; this is a legacy to take pride in and to be expressed whenever given the opportunity to do so. A significant part of South Africa's beauty is its colorful sons and daughters. South Africa, a nation the late President Nelson Mandela spoke of as the "rainbow nation." One can imagine how terrified I am to even begin to attempt to tell these stories of South African people's joys, struggles and more importantly triumphs and the continuity to want to fight for a better South Africa for all its sons and daughters and generations to come.

As the nation reflects on how far the country has come and still needs to go, one can't help but wonder about South Africa's future. A lot of people all over the world have been voicing their opinions about Nelson Mandela's legacy since his passing last year. This is a man who sacrificed so much of himself to make sure that the country he loved was free from oppression without a civil war. He was a flawed human being who had a great heart and great passion for his people and his country. When speaking of his legacy, personally I'd say he gave me the gift to be able to embrace differences, to see color and acknowledge its beauty, to be open about issues that affect humanity and more importantly to be a global citizen. I would like to see a South Africa where people are not afraid to address the errors they have made. I would like to experience a nation that constitutes a true open society and this is possible as the people of South Africa have shown us in the past that nothing is impossible and that the struggles of Albert Sisulu, Joe Slovo, Steve Biko, Chris Hani, Olivier Tambo and many more that came before us have not been forgotten. This is the legacy I would like South Africa to continue to have; the spirit to continue to fight as a peaceful nation, united.

This year's general elections had so many South Africans in fear and doubt. People are fearful of the future of this country, but fear is a great thing to have as it forces people to exercise their human right and demand change. At least that is what I believe. Something shifted inside me in that moment of doubt, fear and questioning myself who am I to write about such a beautiful and sacred country? And to quote Eleanor Roosevelt, "You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do." So, instead of allowing fear to further paralyze me, I got South African people involved, to tell their stories along with me.

These are the few interviews I conducted in South Africa as different individuals reflect on the twenty years of freedom and democracy and what it means for them and the future of South Africans.

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Photo credit: Destiny (Mfundi Vundla)

My first interview took place at the Morula Pictures studios in Auckland Park, Johannesburg with Mfundi Vundla; the creator of South Africa's longest-running television drama series Generations.

Joy Ngoma: South Africa is celebrating 20 years of freedom this year- what does that mean to you and fellow South Africans?

Mfundi Vundla: Twenty years of freedom is essentially twenty years of experiencing and living in a democratic society. As opposed to the totalitarian experience of apartheid where a majority of South Africa's people were disfranchised. So, twenty years of freedom means enjoying the powers of a democratic society. In my situation an opportunity to exercise my artistic talents; writing, developing a series like Generations and others like Jozi H, a medical drama series which I am proud of, and Magic Cellar, an animated series I developed for children designed to promote literacy. Twenty years of democracy has led to the majority of some of us, not all of us, a significant portion of us to self-actualize and become almost what we aspire to be to the very degrees of success of course. That is what twenty years of democracy has meant to me; watching African languages prosper and develop, watching South African sport excel internationally and watching the living conditions of South Africans improve in measures of African middle class and the presence of large numbers of us. African people in a variety of films from which we were excluded because of our ethnicity, and all of that, that's twenty years of democracy. It has meant all of that to me. Twenty years of democracy is a good foundation for South Africa's prosperous society going forward.

Joy Ngoma: Generations is a soapie that has many loyal viewers in this continent and South Africa's pride and joy. It celebrates the dreams and aspirations of many South Africans. Do you think the storylines have reflected a current and transitioning South Africa in terms of economic development and political struggles?

Mfundi Vundla: In my view the stories have reflected a contemporary South Africa; the sweet and the sour of it. Because the series is aired on national broadcaster, the series beyond entertainment has to address protocol issues of national importance. We have had story-lines around the HIV epidemic, the abuse of women and children, violence, crime, homophobia, xenophobia, all those issues which affect us as a people, those have been integrated in some of our story-lines because we reach so many people, at a minimum of 7 million per night given the fact that we are the biggest show on South African Broadcast Corporation. We often have to shoulder some of those issues so, yes in our storyline I'd say we address contemporary issues that are at play in South Africa. We are the sweet and sour of a contemporary South Africa.

Generations never would have existed without democracy, most of the major production houses except for those that existed before apartheid have benefited from the new dispensation and the support of the South African government in the development of television. We are the beneficiaries of the twenty years of freedom and democracy there is no way Generations would have existed under apartheid because under apartheid all the African dramas were written by Afrikaners and other people other than Africans for the African market .When I came along here with Generations 20 years ago, all the people who were writing African dramas were all white people writing for South African people. I was one of those in the forefront to change all of that.

Joy Ngoma: A lot of people all over the world have been voicing their opinions about Nelson Mandela's legacy since his passing last year. What is a Nelson Mandela legacy? Does such a thing exist? And in terms of this country what is the legacy that Mandela left behind?

Mfundi Vundla: Mandela was a great historical figure, one of the fathers of South African democracy. The legacy he left was a legacy of selflessness; how to be selfless, to fight for justice and democratic values even if it means spending 27 years in jail being separated from your family and complication resulting in your family that leads to divorce and alienation of your children. That degree of selflessness and what he has done for South Africa's children through the Nelson Mandela Children's Foundation and now there is going to be a hospital; The Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital, that's a solid legacy in which very few statesmen worldwide have to match. It's like the song says "there is no one like Mandela," there is no one like him. I don't care who says what, there is no head of state in my opinion who has been as selfless as Nelson Mandela. I don't know of one, someone will have to enlighten me and tell me which one. That's why he stands out as a role model or a hero for people worldwide, whether it be gays in Bangladesh who are being terrorized by the state. There was this thing in India against same sex marriage and people there were saying "this would have never happened in Mandela's country." And that tells you the impact of the man. That's his legacy- In stark contrast to some of the leadership which we seeing today which is self-centered and self-aggrandizement. It is reported that Nelson Mandela had an estate of less than R60 million when he died, where as other African leaders have billions and billions of stolen oil revenues sitting on foreign bank accounts. Mandela just served one term and he left, that tells you something about how special that guy is. He is absolutely special.

Joy Ngoma: Where would you like to see the country in 20 years?

Mfundi Vundla: I would like to see us half the poverty we experience in South Africa, half the literacy, wipe out backlog in housing and create more jobs. I would like to see South Africa with an economic growth rate of a minimum of 5 percent per year. And it is possible; South Africa is not a poor country. There's positive beginnings we just have to get our leadership right, limit the corruption and just keep our eye on the ball.

Joy Ngoma: Has South Africa truly become a free and democratic society/ country or is that just an illusion we are meant to believe?

Mfundi Vundla: Yes, the institutions which African people fought for with the struggle for democracy are in place right now; robust institutions, the public sector, judiciary system and the book of law.

Joy Ngoma: What has been our greatest achievement as a people of SA?

Mfundi Vundla: South Africa's greatest achievement is defeating apartheid. South Africans brought a modern totalitarian state to its knees with stones and bricks. Never mind what the ANC (African National Congress) tells you about Umkhonto we sizwe (the spear of the nation). The people who were inside here fought with bricks and stones, and brought this government down, the apartheid government to the negotiating table. That's South Africa's major achievement, to bring one of the most brutal regimes to a grinding halt.

Joy Ngoma: What does freedom mean to you?

Mfundi Vundla: Freedom means living in a democratic society where democratic institutions will protect my rights, and whereby civil rights, democratic rights, the bill of rights and human rights is at the heart of everything that the freedom government does. That's freedom, where everything at its foundation is anchored by human rights, that's freedom.

For part two of my interview I sat down with Elinor Sisulu, a writer, human rights activist, political analyst and author of the biography of Walter and Albertina Sisulu. Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime. The passion and enthusiasm that Elinor shared and continues to share in her line of work is revolutionary. This is what Elinor had to say about South Africa's legacy and its people.

Elinor Sisulu:Part 2
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Photo credit: City Press (Elinor Sisulu)

Joy Ngoma: South Africa is celebrating 20 years of freedom this year- what does that mean to you and fellow South Africans?

Elinor Sisulu: I can't speak for fellow South Africans but what it means for me is that I can say it is a bitter sweet feeling. As a historian, I carefully observed the 20 years and the miracle. I think that now that kind of heady excitement of the miracle of the South African transition to democracy has worn off and things are starting to be pretty rough around the edges. It is very much a mixed feeling. There are a lot of great and wonderful things to celebrate. I just came from the Honorary Doctorate Awards in Rhodes University where Gcina Mhlophe was given an Honorary Doctorate as a South African storyteller, and this would not have happened before. There's a lot of things that are happening. The possibilities and the potential of people and the achievements of South African people in the arts must be celebrated.On the scientific front, South Africa winning the Square Kilometre Array system, is a huge achievement So, there is a lot to celebrate but at the same time there is a lot to be very concerned about.

Joy Ngoma: A lot of people all over the world have been voicing their opinions about Nelson Mandela's legacy since his passing last year. What is a Nelson Mandela legacy? Does such a thing exist? And in terms of this country what is the legacy that Mandela left behind?

Elinor Sisulu: His legacy is multifaceted and complex. Mandela was a complex person and I think his legacy reflects that. There are so many aspects to his legacy; one off course is the foundation that he left and the legacy institutions that are doing wonderful work. I have been working closely with the Nelson Mandela Institute for Education and Rural Development at Fort Hare University. And they are working with teachers, doing writing workshops for teachers, building up teachers' capabilities, with a strong focus on indigenous languages. Their work reflects Mandela's passion for education. He wanted kids to learn in the best possible conditions and he was passionate about equality in education; for every child to have a chance to realize their potential. That is one very, very important legacy. The other one of course is in the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Centre of Memory. Remembering, and remembering in a way that enables you to do now, to act in the present. Not just remembering for the sake of remembering but actually harnessing that spirit and history in order to understand what it means to be human in South Africa today and how to improve human conditions. Then of course the Nelson Mandela's Children's Fund, the legacy of really trying to make sure children are cared for, their education, their health and their well-being as the future citizens. So, I think that has manifested itself in the Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital.

I think the other legacy he left was the legacy of leadership. That you can have a leadership that transcends ideological, regional, ethnic, religion, even gender divides. He showed us that it is possible to have that kind of leadership and how to do it. One of the things that I personally find Mandela taught me is how to suppress the ego at appropriate moments, how not to worry about losing face in the process. Even though people praise Mandela they usually don't pay attention to that legacy of leadership.

Joy Ngoma: Where would you like to see the country in 20 years?

Elinor Sisulu: Well, I would like to see a country that has actually addressed the major challenges of our time. For example, the violence; whether criminal violence, gender based, especially gender based violence, intimate partner violence, just all sorts of violence. All these challenges. That we have a country that has strong institutions which work and function effectively to address these challenges, that we have people who exercise their citizenship in responsible and progressive ways. By that I mean that today we have a situation where people don't do that. The class divide is so strong. The racial divide of the past that has been placed by the class divide. Here we have an articulate section of citizenship, middle class people who are competitive, who live lifestyles of comfort unmatched many parts of the world. But at the same time a growing under class, a poverty stricken, materially deprived under class that is getting angrier as poverty and inequality increase. This section of the population is articulating this anger in sometimes negative and destructive ways; for instance burning of clinics and libraries during service delivery protests.

We are also seeing the emergence of a populist leadership, a corrupt and disruptive leadership, which is promising people things that it cannot actually deliver,Populism which is based on attacking people and attacking the kind of non-racial project of the African National Congress( ANC) I would like to see a country that is actually addresses inequality. South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world and without addressing that level of inequality, it is going to be very difficult to ensure a peaceful and stable future. I would like to see a country that has addressed inequality and addressed all forms of violence I would like to see a country that has also mobilized itself to achieve climate change and environmental sustainability. We have huge environmental challenges and sometimes I am afraid people are so involved in politicking around the here and the now that they lose sight of the long term challenges that we face.

I would also like to see a country that has sorted out its relationships with the continent and actually locates itself in the continent, and sees itself as an integral part of the continent. I think as a whole there is no Pan Africanist vision amongst the vast majority of South Africans. Too many people don't know enough about the rest of the continent and what I sometimes wonder if this ignorance is due to the fact that they don't care enough. There are sections of our population whose for racist perspective leads them to view the rest of the continent as a basket case.

Xenophobia is very strong. I would like to see a country that is not xenophobic. I wish we would see the value of having people from all over the continent and the cultural wealth that they bring from all over. . I would like to see a country that is able to take advantage of the people we invite, that the Pan Africanist project actually works and that e people embrace it; and say, yes, we are part of a continent, with numerous problems but also enormous potential I would like to see the people engaging far more with the rest of Africa in f the field of the arts and literature.

I work in literature and I feel if you look at the literature there are not enough African stories. A South African child would not normally read about a child in Mozambique or Madagascar or Senegal or Swaziland. Children learn about the rest of the continent and the rest of the world through understanding about the people in those places. It is through reading and learning about those places that they develop empathy and interest in the rest of the world and the continent. I think that is the kind of brokenness that worries me. Xenophobia is a constant threat. I would like to see a country that is rejuvenated by streams of culture and intellectual traditions from elsewhere in the continent. Part of xenophobia is that we haven't taken the time and we haven't invested the resources to introduce the rest of the continent to the people.

How do you expect a child in Potchefstroom (a small town in the North West region of South Africa) to actually know about Ivory Coast or Senegal or any notion of Pan African solidarity if they are not exposed to anything which speaks to them as a young African child? These are things that are very challenging to us.

Joy Ngoma: Has South Africa truly become a free and democratic society/ country or is that just an illusion we are meant to believe?

Elinor Sisulu: I think it is not an illusion. There are very positive things, radio wise and in terms of political freedom. South Africa is one of the freest countries in Africa. I grew up and was educated in Zimbabwe, and I see the difference. For example, I think one of the greatest things in South Africa are radio talk shows on which South Africans from all walks of life can can express their opinions, they can engage the political leadership, they can talk about corruption, they are free to talk. Even a country like Tanzania which is relatively a greater developed freedom does not have that. Media freedom in South Africa compares favourably with most countries on this continent. The judiciary .is also comparatively more independent. The judiciary, the media, the Chapter 9 institutions, even if they don't work as they supposed to, but the fact that they are there. We have a constitution that has been hailed a model throughout the world- it's a huge achievement to have a constitution like that.

And it's not only important that we have a document called the constitution but that we adhere to that constitution. While engaged in civil society struggles in Zimbabwe, I often felt that there was too much focus on a new constitution but not on constitutionalism. Because you can have a wonderful constitution but whether people are going to actually adhere to the constitution, whether they respect it and whether it's reflected in the way the state operates, that is another matter. In South Africa we have a functioning parliament. Even though they come under a lot of criticism, the institutions are there and I think that there is space to engage in the struggle for the integrity of all these institutions. It is a great that we have a Public Protector that can actually make such an impact in calling the Executive to account. These are very positive things and one has to just fight for those spaces and the integrity of those institutions.

On the down side, I would say that the ability of citizens to actually access those institutions is not what it should be For example, for citizens to access the justice system, to articulate themselves on the media, to actually be present as citizens in the national consciousness, that is a major problem, because there are people who are so alienated and marginalized that they do not see the democracy working for them and the only way they feel they can express themselves is through burning libraries and clinics, and putting burning tyres on highways. And that is a manifestation of people who do not understand and who are not able to access the democratic rights of citizenship,, Because they are not able to access those rights they revolt to those kinds of behaviors. It's a question of trying to develop substantive citizenship, where all people see themselves as citizens and clearly that is not the case now.

For them democracy is an illusion. If you are staying in some shack in some godforsaken place that doesn't have any services, where the matric pass rate is 10 percent and children don't have a chance of getting through school, they don't have a chance of learning to read independently, they don't have a chance of getting employment, they are subjected to violence and conflicts within the community, of course you are really going to say freedom and democracy is an illusion.
It depends where you are standing; for the young middle class, democracy is a real thing, , For people like you and my children because it means you can get jobs which you wouldn't have got 20 years ago. It means you don't have to carry a Pass (Pass laws in South Africa were designed to control the movement of Africans under apartheid), you can move around as a citizen, you can compete with anyone; you can be able to compete because of your education and your self- confidence. You have traveled internationally and been exposed to many cultures and ways of life so you have the self-confidence that comes from such education- then yes, it is a reality; democracy is a reality but if you don't have all of those things then you are in a different space and to you it would be an illusion.

Joy Ngoma: What has been our greatest achievement as a people of SA?

Elinor Sisulu: Undoubtedly the greatest achievement was the peaceful transition and election of 1994 and moving from apartheid into a democratic South Africa. You can appreciate the South African miracle when you look at other countries that were not able to effect such transition; you look at Angola, 30 years of war, that was a failure of a transition, same thing in Mozambique, wars which killed tens of thousands of citizens. We could have easily have had that scenario in South Africa; look at Rwanda with the genocide. I think that it's easy when something hasn't happened for us to criticize that it's a failed revolution to some extent but the fact that we were able to move through that moment without descending into a destructive conflict, I think it's a huge achievement. I think the leadership of the ANC at that time; Mandela and his cohort of leaders, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and others must receive all the accolades for actually taking South Africa through that transition. I must say here- I know President Jacob Zuma is under fire at the moment, and I am not defending him on the Nkandla report or whatever, but I think also the historic role that he played in the transition in KwaZulu Natal is something that is not enough in the consciousness of South Africa. You have a sector of people who don't understand why people are voting for this man and the much of the answer lies is in the role that he played in securing peace at a very difficult historical moment.

The people in KwaZulu Natal know the role he played with Nelson Mandela and the leadership of the ANC at that time. KwaZulu Natal was on the brink of a civil war and that was averted because the leaders went in and said we are going to find a peaceful solution to this. I think that is the greatest achievement and I think that also, I would say part of Nelson Mandela's legacy where he said we value human life and we are not going to allow ourselves to descend into war- I think he actually said "...we can't have freedom on the bodies of 20 thousand dead, we have to find a way, even when being abused ..". I actually remember when I interviewed President Jacob Zuma for the Albertina and Walter Sisulu biography I was writing and he spoke about how Mandela wanted to go into a particular area in KwaZulu Natal in the face of serious death threats. He was so determined to go and speak as part of his effort to reach out to everybody and Zuma who was responsible for security at that time was trying to persuade him not to go and they had to phone Walter Sisulu to say can you at least talk to Mandela so he doesn't go. These things are not public knowledge; they happened behind the scenes.

Joy Ngoma: What does freedom mean to you?

Elinor Sisulu: Freedom on a political level to me means a society that has good leadership, that has institutions that actually protect the rights of every citizen even the most materially deprived, most humble citizen in the land. In fact I think the Zimbabwean writer Chenjerai Hove put it very well that when "Democracy is when the ant can speak in the ear of the elephant and be listened to.So, that's what freedom means; where all people can see themselves as citizens, where every child has the opportunity to have its potential realized whether it's a potential to be an artist, or a scientist or a humanitarian. That every single child has the opportunity to have that potential realized and live and grow up without fear of violence. Has the freedom to move, freedom of expression.

Joy Ngoma: What would you like you legacy to be for South Africans?

Elinor Sisulu: Well, I'd like my legacy to be that for children in this continent not just South Africa can say we had a greater access to books and we have had the resources to learn to read because of this person. The legacy of giving all children greater access to books, the possibility to be able to read, to have the best education possible and to take advantage of modern technology in order to realize their own potential.
Biography:

Elinor Sisulu is Zimbabwean-born South Africa writer and human rights activist who combines training in history, English literature, development studies and feminist theory from institutions in Zimbabwe, Senegal and the Netherlands.

She is the author of the award-winning children book The Day Gogo Went to Vote. In 1993 she was awarded a fellowship at the prestigious Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College where she started writing the biography of her parents-in-law, Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime. Published in 2002 to critical acclaim, the Sisulu biography won the Noma Award for publishing in Africa.

Elinor has for many years been involved in book promotion and literary development efforts. She is the Chairperson of the Puku Children's Literature Foundation and a member of the National Arts Festival board.



More interviews coming soon....

Biography:
Elinor Sisulu is Zimbabwean-born South Africa writer and human rights activist who combines training in history, English literature, development studies and feminist theory from institutions in Zimbabwe, Senegal and the Netherlands.

She is the author of the award-winning children book The Day Gogo Went to Vote. In 1993 she was awarded a fellowship at the prestigious Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College where she started writing the biography of her parents-in-law, Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime. Published in 2002 to critical acclaim, the Sisulu biography won the Noma Award for publishing in Africa.

Elinor has for many years been involved in book promotion and literary development efforts. She is the Chairperson of the Puku Children's Literature Foundation and a member of the National Arts Festival board.

"There are no great deeds, there are only small deeds done with Great Love" ~ Mother Teresa