Over the past couple of weeks, I have found myself tuning into the evening news with a wariness that I haven’t experienced in a long time. My usual jadedness – my numb acceptance of the fact that the world is descending irretrievably into chaos- has been pierced by the stark realization that my beloved Madiba, Nelson Mandela, may be taking his final steps.
As I eagerly anticipate updates on his health status, I am reminded that his long walk to freedom is drawing to a close. As it does, many of us have already begun to grasp the emotional and moral calamity his passing will wreak upon a nation already suffering a crisis of confidence.
South Africa’s former president was hospitalized recently for a lung infection –a recurring condition he has battled since contracting tuberculosis during his 27 years in prison. After being treated for the infection, the 94 year-old anti-apartheid legend then had to undergo surgery to have gallstones removed. Blessedly, he has been released from hospital and is reported to be recovering. Yet, as I witnessed Mandela’s frail look on TV, it is hard not to recall the recent words of his wife, Graca Machel, who admitted that his spirit and sparkle are fading.
What makes his convalescence all the more painful to witness is the realization that his political legacy – one built upon years of selflessness and unquestionable integrity; staunch, unwavering leadership; and a moral authority and stature unparalleled in modern times – stands in such stark and dismal contrast to the chaotic farce on display in the current political life of South Africa. Such is the prevailing crisis of leadership that led Archbishop Desmond Tutu to cry out recently, almost in tears: “What has happened to us? I mean, what has happened to us that we can just go on going on [like this]?”
Tutu’s anguish, vented recently at a memorial service for one of South Africa’s veteran anti-apartheid activists and former member of Mandela’s cabinet, comes in the wake of an ongoing torrent of scandal along with amid grim statistics that speak undeniably of a nation struggling to find its compass. Speaking forcefully, his voice laden with anger, the archbishop and Nobel laureate decried the moral failure of South Africa’s current leadership.
Echoing public outcry, he lambasted the government over recent debacles that have rankled the nation including : Current President Jacob Zuma’s use of nearly $24 million dollars of taxpayer money to build a lavish family compound in the midst of one of the poorest areas in the country; another recent scandal in which thousands of students have had to forgo textbooks – even though $17 million dollars was spent on dodgy contractors meant to supply them; and a national high school pass rate for South Africa recently revealed to average 30 percent.
The proverbial buck for these tragic failures stops at the door of South Africa’s leadership–the African National Congress, the party to which Madiba dedicated his life and bequeathed his legacy and the organization in which he and millions of other South Africans have placed their trust.
With near unanimity, South Africans from across the spectrum agree that corruption and maladministration have reached staggering proportions, and pose two of the greatest threats facing the country in recent history. In a society reeling under an unemployment burden of nearly 40 percent, and with millions of citizens still without access to clean water, sanitation, housing and quality education, the untold billions seeping through the sieves of corrupt hands represents an evil that is rotting the Rainbow Nation from within.
As custodians of the nation’s future, South Africa’s leaders–and the leadership of the African National Congress in particular–must stem this tide if it is to reclaim the vision for which Mandela –and indeed millions of South Africans–fought so courageously and selflessly.
Let’s pray that South Africa’s current leadership steps back from the precipice of self-destruction, renewing its commitment to the ideals and values that paved the path of victory over apartheid. The Rainbow Nation can still realize the greatness and promise of its bold beginnings.
There is still time; but the clock is ticking on the patience and goodwill of the South African people. The African National Congress would do well to bear this in mind. Africa is filled with nations brimming with hope at the dawn of their independence, but which spiraled into the depths of disaster and despair at the hands of inept leaders. Many–both inside and outside of the country–are betting that South Africa is headed down the same road.
Thomas Mambande is a Philadelphia-born social entrepreneur and corporate consultant who lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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