As President Jacob Zuma’s chaotic, divisive and discredited administration stumbled into the early months of 2018, the board of the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF) were presented with the toughest call of their careers.
Since its founding by Mandela in 1999, the NMF had striven to uphold its namesake’s legacy, promoting his vision of a free, equal and multi-racial South Africa while deftly avoiding contentious political interventions. But as corruption allegations, policy inertia and factionalism within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) reached boiling point amid a backdrop of economic decline, the board took the bold decision to reinforce its opposition to Zuma.
In a strongly worded media statement released on 6 February, the NMF was unequivocal – Zuma must resign.
“He must go because he has demonstrated that he is not fit to govern. We call on the state to hold him accountable for his actions. Some things cannot be pardoned,” they wrote. Radical step Speaking to African Business at the NMF’s headquarters in Johannesburg as the organisation celebrates the centenary of Mandela’s birth, chief executive Sello Hatang explains why the board took such a radical step.
“It was not easy. The board had to go through a long process of ensuring we got it right and that South Africans understand what we meant. The sad reality is we made a decision not to be neutral because neutrality cannot be right when you see the legacy being destroyed.
“From 2008–09 our economy has been on a downward spiral. We’ve had no growth in terms of employment, unemployment hits the young more than ever, and it’s these things we were worried about and we thought we cannot allow ourselves to be quiet when voices like ours are needed.”
The NMF’s statement made international headlines, concentrating attention on the failings of Zuma while prompting a backlash about who, if anyone, should speak on behalf of the late President Mandela. Hatang says that the polarised reaction had been anticipated by the board, which far from making an impulsive decision, had first pursued years of engagement with the ruling party on its “trust deficit”.
“We did come under fire. As you can imagine there were those who thought we’d crossed a line… They’d say we need to be a sane voice in a period of insanity, we need to be the ones convening and to be a neutral party. So it’s not like at the time we made the decision everyone agreed with us. On the contrary it might be true to say a huge number of people who followed us thought we had crossed a line.”
Telling truth to power
Hatang says that the controversy of the last few months, combined with the centenary of Mandela’s birth, has helped to inject renewed vigour into the NMF, imbuing the organisation with anger at the vast inequalities that persist in South Africa.
“I think we are at a critical point at the foundation [as we] begin to reimagine the legacy Madiba left us. We need to begin to be saying what does it meant to tell truth to power? And to always ask ourselves what would Madiba have done. We never want to speak for him and we try and avoid that, but that informs the approach we take to issues. So this turbulent moment is a moment for us not be calm, but to be enraged about the society we want, not for today, but future generations still to come.”
For much of its history, the NMF has concentrated on promoting the memory of Mandela and hosting dialogues in which businesses, politicians, ordinary citizens and activists get around the table to iron out their differences, following the example of Mandela’s negotiations with the apartheid regime after his release from prison. On the day that African Business visited its headquarters the NMF was holding a workshop with businesses on issues relating to state capture.
“We see ourselves as a think tank but one that creates a safe space for people to say the unsayable, for people to be able to engage with those they don’t necessarily engage with. So we’re not just a think tank but we also engage people who go and change policy,” says Hatang.
As South Africa embarks on a new era under President Cyril Ramaphosa, Hatang argues that now would be an opportune time for the ANC to rediscover the principles advocated by Mandela that were absent during the Zuma years – notably a concern for the poorest in society and the adoption of consensus-based politics focusing on dialogue, rigorous policy implementation and genuine economic transformation.
“We have to have a leadership that cares deeply about the poor and vulnerable. We have to be committed to real transformation. Thus far we’ve had some moves which suggest we are for transformation but there has to be structural transformation. We must be committed to eradicating poverty and inequality, to dealing with race and identity. Racism has again become a major problem for our society. And for the ANC the first step would be to begin to deal with the arrogance of power. With arrogance of power comes the politics of majoritarianism, where we just say we have the numbers so we can do as we please.” Time for root-and-branch reform While NMF statements have welcomed the political demise of Zuma and congratulated Ramaphosa and others on the “sterling work” of ousting him, Hatang says that the end of the Zuma era must be the starting point for true root-and-branch ANC reform.
“[Zuma] was just the head of that problem but actually the rot is too deep. We need to root it out from municipalities, provinces and national government. At the moment we are obsessed with one office – to be brutally frank with an individual – and we’re losing sight of what’s important.”
Having departed from its non-partisan role, some may be expecting the NMF to continue holding the government’s feet to the fire. While adamant that the NMF will focus on dialogue and memory, Hatang says that the board reserves the right to speak up if Mandela’s legacy is again imperilled.
“At the heart [of our work] is building a society that listens to voices and remembers the past, but at the core of the work is social justice. You cannot claim to be doing that if you are silent once things go wrong, and if called upon to do it again, I’m sure I don’t think there will be reluctance from the board to call for those [responsible] to be held accountable.”