The problem with Mandela Day

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Mandela Day in our country has limitations. On my recent visit to Rwanda, I witnessed how they involve their whole country in a traditional practice called Umuganda. 

Once a month they work together in villages and towns for two to four hours on a Saturday morning. Their country is clean, and communities volunteer to build houses and schools.

Mandela Day is once a year and has enthused many of us. The call is to do good for others for 67 minutes. Should those of us from more privileged backgrounds not rather commit to helping one community on an ongoing basis and support their efforts? 

We understand the notion of working together to build something better. The foundation of this comes from our philosophical understanding of Ubuntu. 

But it also comes from lived experience over the past 100 years of building movements to change South African conditions of racism and disempowerment. My generation knows we can change our conditions and circumstances through our own efforts. Examples are endless. It is in our blood.

Yet we have given up that power by handing our power to a political process that has ensnared us in approaches that are foreign to us. Mostly the bureaucracies of the old order and the red tape of the new order drive us crazy.

Instead of consciously strengthening local change agents after 1990 we, in effect, demobilised a network across the country. It was a costly mistake but it is not too late to change this.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation that drives the Mandela Day campaign should seriously consider a change in approach. Former Irish prime minister Mary Robinson set the scene for such change when she delivered the 10th Annual Mandela Lecture in Cape Town recently. 

She said the Irish had a tradition called Meitheal. Meitheal was a traditional, rural practice of people coming together to work, farmers lending support to their neighbours as the need arose and the involvement of every member of the community. It expresses the idea of community spirit and self-reliance. “If a farmer was sick, his field would be done willingly by neighbours,” she said.

Umuganda, Meitheal and Mandela Day are all three home-grown initiatives that come not from China or the US. With some tweaking, Mandela Day can be evolved into a regular practice that connects us to a culture that is in our blood. 

  • Zubeida Jaffer is a well known South African reporter and Author.


This article was published on City Press.