Cancer, according to Wikipedia, is a group of diseases characterised by abnormal cell growth, having the potential to invade or spread to all parts of the body. I find in our attitudes to special days an almost cancerous spreading taking place; an idea has taken root and spread that these days are all about the symbolic action, the big speeches, the social events. We have lost contact with the core, and been swept into a version of celebration that is all surface, no content.
About a month ago, 34 000 people converged at the Wanderers Stadium in the freezing cold to listen to Barack Obama address the Nelson Mandela Day Centenary Celebrations. I looked on as South Africans packed the stadium to overflowing, taking two hours to exit at the end. Two hours! That’s the time it takes to travel from Johannesburg to Middleburg – or the time it might take to hand out a hot meal to the many homeless thronging our city.
This eagerness to take part in the popular, visible, big-name events got me thinking about what Mandela Day means to me. Why do we have this day? It is supposed to get us out of our homes and comfort zones, doing something practical to make a positive impact on the lives of our people. I reflected that if all those 34000 people simply gave ZAR100 towards the building of a shelter in Johannesburg CBD, we’d cut our homelessness problem in a couple of months. ZAR3.4mil could build the shelter, employ the social workers, and start the employment schemes that might tip the scales for so many young lives. Just a warm bed and the prospect of work could instill hope and courage, and re-direct many lives currently adrift.
At the time of the Obama visit, a gala dinner was scheduled for the evening. I considered the ZAR5000 it would cost me for the ticket and suit hire, and at the last minute decided not to attend. My plan was to find some way of using that money, instead, to invest in the lives of children.
I got hold of a school in a rural area and enquired about the help they most needed for this small amount. Together with a funder, I now have a plan and a place to put my ZAR5000 – and more – in a way that will make an immediate and practical difference this winter. My colleagues who attended the gala dinner were disappointed that I did not join them; but I have been going through a serious bout of ‘conscience re-awakening’ and can no longer do what once seemed normal.
Once the ball was rolling, my thoughts ran wild. Earlier this year I had visited the school to distribute shoes and knew that these families lived on an average ZAR1600 a month for an entire household. I began calculating … what if we started a fund that would add ZAR200 to twenty families each month? That little drop for us might make a massive difference to a single woman – often a grandmother – supporting many children on so little. What if we kept the project going for year, made it clear it was for a limited period, and then assessed whether and how to continue? We’d start in 2019, when uniforms and school supplies have to be paid for. How would we select the families? I have no answers yet – but if the idea interests you, let me know. This, to me, is Mandela Day and Women’s Day made meaningful.
Think about it; we have been reporting on Women’s Day and Mandela Day celebrations for a full five years now, on and off; the stories and the conversations remain the same, and the truth is, little changes. Impactful programmes do exist – run by dedicated people, willing to get their hands dirty and commit over the long term – but such programmes are few and far between. So often the work takes a back seat to the publicity, knowledge and contacts that funders seek to gain. Some are out to empower themselves rather than communities, and so do not see the change they claim to make.
These thoughts began in relation to Mandela Day, but they apply equally to Women’s Day.
This is why I look upon some of our actions as simply part of the problem, like a cancer that runs wild, proliferating and doing nothing to improve out condition as a society.
Luvuyo Madasa – (Nelson Mandela’s Great Grand Son) said that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission failed us; I say that we fail now, in how we approach Mandela Day and Women’s Day. Let’s not be satisfied with the grand gesture but be willing to take on real issues in quiet and unassuming ways, and join with others who feel as we do, to pinpoint specific ways we can bring hope and courage to the forgotten and the invisible.