My Apology on International Mandela Day

The season of 'imbongi' praise singing is upon us. July 18 marks our founding father Madiba's 94th birthday. Patriotic South Africans and many worldwide will line up to commit the mandatory 67 minutes to some good cause.

Today I apologize to the youth of the world. My generation has betrayed the dreams, aspirations and future that you have a right to. Our education deepens social inequality. The overwhelming majority of young people in South African townships and rural areas sit in over-crowded classrooms, without textbooks, laboratories, libraries, sports facilities and properly qualified teachers.

Generations of young people will leave school after 12 years with few skills, no jobs and unlikely to have the human dignity of a decent job in their lifetime.

It is true. A recent official government survey says that two thirds of South Africans live on less than R2500 ($300) per month many supporting their extended families on such a pittance.

Daily, our senses are assaulted by the epidemic of corruption that characterizes of our society.

All of this happened on our watch.

Today, government ministers will trade fancy suits for overalls to give the cameras a glimpse of our past struggle for freedom. They will still arrive in their luxury vehicles escorted by the blue light brigade and help paint a school, hand out soccer kits and to break bread with the people. It will remind of the ancient Roman festival celebrating the winter solstice when slaves traded places with their masters -- the masters serving their servants during the feast.

For 67 minutes, corporate executives will cut ribbons, lecture their employees about being one big happy family and tick the box of corporate social responsibility mumbling under their breath at the time they have sacrificed when they could be making profits, power outages or the chaos of service delivery.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in jail for our freedom -- that's 14,191,200 minutes in a prison cell not much bigger than the average bathroom.

I reflect on that ground breaking day, Feb. 2, 1990, when F.W. de Klerk lifted a 30-year ban on the ANC and all banned organizations and announced that Nelson Mandela would be released from prison. It marked the beginning of irreversible change. We knew that something had to change. The political stalemate was dragging us deeper into a scorched earth of a racial civil war.

The timing caught us by surprise. We flooded the streets and euphoria enveloped the country and the world. On Cape Town's Grand Parade on the day of his release, Mandela began to speak and a hushed silence fell over the square. We were pregnant with optimism and national pride. Mandela freed not only us from apartheid. He freed us the world's poor, oppressed and marginalized from the shackles of poverty, prejudice, religious and gender intolerance. I remember his first public words as it rang out quietly: "I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands... "

How many of those in power still believe in this commitment. Certainly there are leaders who work tirelessly towards this dream but overwhelming the majority has abandoned this vision.

Mandela Day has now been officially adopted by the United Nations unanimously as "Nelson Mandela International Day" but the world faces an unprecedented crisis. A new apartheid rises that divides us into the global rich and the overwhelming majority of global poor. We stand at the edge of a precipice of despair, joblessness, hunger and conflict. The glaring deficit is a visionary and bold global leadership to solve our human dilemma.

The failure of Rio+20 Summit the most recent example of how powerful vested interests of the political and economic elites in the world conspire to perpetuate human greed that will destroy lives of millions and wreak ecological disaster on our very planet. The extremes of weather from heat waves, forest fires and flooding to the ferocity of tornadoes, and prolonged droughts hitting parts of our African continent are consequences far from the air-conditioned offices and glitterati in the ballrooms of the world's capitals where the merchant class and their aristocratic principals discuss our poverty.

So what needs to be done?

We need to act against the rising tide of political arrogance and corruption that wracks our country and the world and eats at our social fabric. The abuse of state resources is theft from the poor. It is a cancer that corrupts state officials, undermines our democracy and weakens the faith and trust of our people in their public institutions. We need a zero-tolerance approach to this abuse of power and to tackle corruption wherever it raises its head -- in public or private sectors and even in civil society.

Mandela stood for human dignity, social justice and a world free from want and hunger. He demanded that leaders across government, the corporate and civil society serve the interests of the people instead of themselves. He represented the epitome of humility, the anti-thesis for the political arrogance we see across the world.

So if we want to celebrate Mandela the person, let us stop the desecration of his memory. No more plaques. No more statues, no more streets named after him or honorary doctorates from distinguished universities.

Let us return to the simple honest values of service. Let us return to the painstaking organizing we did at the coal face which created the tsunami of mass struggles that allowed an iconic Mandela to lead us to freedom.

One thing that I have understood is that nothing replaces building a social movement that shares the tools of leadership, gives the poor the confidence to lead themselves and ensures that the victories they win are owned by them. That is the foundation of democracy -- when the people recognize that they are not subjects to be governed but active citizens who should be feared by their leaders. That is the only viable strategy to ensure accountability and transparency and a democracy that is based on social justice and socially inclusive growth.

I am exhausted by the rhetoric, the endless stream of resolutions and PowerPoint presentations that analyze our dilemma and offer some 'noble' solution that can be parachuted into our communities. What we need is honesty. Do the job we pay you for. If you are a teacher, be in the classroom on time, be prepared for your lessons and invest in building a generation of youth that can take advantage of the opportunity of democracy. If you are a state official, do the job we pay you for in issuing ID documents, policing or running our public functions without selling public tenders or charging citizens a 'private tax.' If you are a government minister, drop the 'blue lights,' behave like a servant of the people and live a lifestyle at your own expense and not that of the public taxpayer. You have no divine right to rule us.

If you are a corporate executive consider the proposition that a business flourishes in the long term in an ecosystem of social stability in which quality education, health and safety are a reality for all citizens. Therefore mainstream your social responsibility projects because tackling poverty and creating sustainable jobs and livelihoods are in your business interests.

And lastly to leaders of civil society, NGOs, and social movements, stop standing on your high horses and issuing edicts of change. Roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. You are as much of the problem as the solution. And be very aware that the most recent ferment in the world from the 'Arab Spring' to the 'Occupy Movements' or the recent outrage against rising food prices and corruption had very little to do with you.

The overarching objective of Mandela Day is to inspire individuals to take action to help change the world for the better, and in doing so build a global movement for good. Ultimately it seeks to empower communities everywhere. "Take Action; Inspire Change; Make Every Day a Mandela Day." That is what I endeavor to do every day of my remaining life -- to support the next generation reclaim their rightful heritage to our world.

To you -- the youth of the world -- cast your own vision, fashion your own strategy and carve your own path towards the world you want. Let no one strangle your voice and your future. Because as an ancient Native American proverb says that my generation has "not inherited the world from our ancestors. We have borrowed it from you our children."

Jay Naidoo is a Founding General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Union, Minister of Reconstruction and Development of the Nelson Mandela Cabinet, and a global, political and social activist.