The greatest honour we can pay Madiba as South Africans pay tribute with 67 minutes

It’s easy to snigger at all the ‘good deeds’ posted by influencers, Z-list celebrities and other assorted glory hounds for Mandela Day this week. But to do so is to ignore the fact that good was actually done. 

Even if there are those who only pitch up for the pictures and the desperate attempt by their colleagues to get it into the papers the next day, there are still the others who made sure that classrooms got painted – and probably donated the leftover paint and the brushes afterwards. 

There will still be homeless people who got a bowl of soup on a cold day that they might not have done. There will be girls who will have sanitary towels for the rest of the year because a bunch of people climbed Kilimanjaro.

For all the corporate t-shirts and beanies dished out, many seeds will have been planted – among the more fortunate to think of the less fortunate, and particularly the desperate. And that’s the point. Mandela Day, all 67 minutes of it, has always been a marketing construct since it was first dreamt up in 2009, but it has endured a lot longer than many other Madiba marketing wheezes.

There’s always a gravitational force to revise history and so too it is with Nelson Mandela, getting people to focus on less father-of the nation and more revolutionary; the Mandela who was sent to Robben Island for life rather than the gallows. Those are vital parts to his story, but the sum of his life is far greater than the parts. 

It is easy for those who weren’t alive at the time to denounce him today as a sell-out. They don’t even begin to imagine the knife edge he walked. Last year – 26 years after he became president – we almost had that civil war that he singlehandedly defused. We forget how he only served for a term. We forget how he pledged a large chunk of his salary to a children’s fund in his name. We forget how he soldiered on as an activist for the most vulnerable and as a moral compass for the rest of us – especially during the HIV/ Aids catastrophe under his successor Thabo Mbeki.

We’ve seen all too well what has happened since Madiba retired not once but twice, before finally passing on. We’ve been impoverished by those who came after him without his intellect and vision or his courage to lead. We’ve seen the self-enrichment.

On Monday, many South Africans spent 67 minutes doing their bit to remember him by doing something for others. It’s the greatest honour we could pay him, it’s also the one thing that actually makes us South African – even if it’s only for 67 minutes a year and a t-shirt – ubuntu

Our Mandela-ness is always there: it cuts across class, colour and creed; it shows up in acts of random kindness, unimaginable cohesion in crisis and a true gees, whether for a soccer world cup or a Springbok world cup winning captain.

Thank you, Madiba, now more than ever actually.

This was originally published in The Saturday Star on 23 July 2022.