The former Public Protector reminds us that it takes everyone to make a country work, not just its leaders, writes Phelokazi Mbude.
Former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela says that South Africans all have a role to play in solving the issues the country is facing.
Delivering the keynote address dedicated to honouring former president Nelson Mandela at the SA Local Government Association conversations at the Wits School of Governance earlier this month, she said there were lessons that could be learnt from the leaders of his generation.
“As we celebrate the centenary of our treasured former president Nelson Mandela, we need to remind ourselves that it takes a village to achieve the epic things we tend to attribute to one person.”
She made reference to Albertina Sisulu – this year also marks her centenary – Oliver Tambo and Mandela himself as some of the notable leaders South Africans could learn from as their leadership roles brought South Africa into democracy.
“Often, we hang all our hopes on one leader. We think that the rest of us can be consumers of democracy and not citizens within a democracy,” Madonsela said.
“The difference between a consumer of democracy and the citizen within the democracy is that a consumer folds their hands and they pay for the services delivered.
“And if the services are not delivered in the manner that they want them, they get angry, and they can toyi-toyi and do all sorts of things and do a lot of blaming. A citizen, on the other hand, is engaged and takes responsibility.”
She noted that, after his presidency, Mandela left the country on a “pedestal of hope”.
Madonsela said South Africa was currently facing many challenges. She referenced the current unemployment rate, which is close to 30%, the millions of citizens living in poverty (more than 50%) and growing levels of inequality.
“We’re sitting here at a time where democracy is in peril, it is under threat. The flame of democracy is under threat as citizens increasingly disengage and become consumers or seek alternatives,” she said.
We need all hands on deck – historical advantage, no historical advantage, men, women, children, the old. United, we’re going to rise; divided, we’re going to fall
She added that it was in everyone’s best interests to make sure that democracy was not in peril. As a reminder, she said there was not one type of democracy and that it was within in the power of South Africans to make democracy work for our time.
“If we are going to draw lessons from Mandela’s legacy and the people of his generation who put us on a pedestal of hope, what would that legacy be?
“I personally think his greatest attribute was integrity. That allowed him to stay selfless, that allowed him to stay ethical, that allowed him to lead with purpose. It also allowed him to be conscious of the impact of his decisions and nondescisions.”
She said this was what we could draw from Mandela’s legacy, and she emphasised the aspect of ethical leadership.
“Do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do,” she said emphatically.
She said building a united country and a peaceful country did not take one day.
“If we want vibrant communities, if we want successful communities, we’re going to need everyone on board. We need all hands on deck – historical advantage, no historical advantage, men, women, children, the old. United, we’re going to rise; divided, we’re going to fall.”
She encouraged the local government officials in attendance to be what she called “epic” leaders – they needed to be ethical, purpose driven, have integrity and be committed to serve.
She prompted them to seize moments in their positions to serve people rather than seize moments to gain votes. She said attempts to only gain votes had “perverted the ethics of our people”.
“By being here, we are choosing the Mandela way, the way of stepping forward and rising to the occasion. By being here together, we’re stepping up and saying that we are going build thriving and inclusive communities. We’re choosing to lead for a country that is anchored in inclusive economic growth and democracy that works for all.”
Before being met with a rousing round of applause, Madonsela said: “It can be done. There is a Mandela in all of us.”