Mandela Day and The Politics of Absolution

What would the children of the rich do with themselves without the poor?

An interesting question.

As we are nearing the 18th of July, the birthdate of the world’s most loved statesman, Nelson Mandela, and International Mandela Day, all sectors of South African society are busy, none more than the private sector. Orphanage homes are going to be painted, groceries are going to be bought and sent to poor households, one day soup kitchens will be run, parks will be cleaned, and more. The day is usually eventful, as we will probably see on social media and company websites, television, we will even hear about it on radio. For one day in 365, the citizens of South Africa and the world will be ‘helping the poor’. Its the ONE DAY the world goes crazy in public displays of compassion.

The actual impact of this day, however, in my opinion, is grossly exaggerated. Especially when one weighs the resources that are available against the actual impact achieved. Very few of the acts and deeds performed on Mandela day are sustainable. And I refuse to believe that this is an oversight on the part of Mandela Day philantropists. So, why is Mandela day, and all it comes with, so important to those in power, especially the rich?

The answer lies in the history of South Africa, and also the class dynamics and relations between the haves and the have nots in neo liberal capitalist South Africa.

The country we see as South Africa was built on the backs of cheap black working class labour. The foundations of our country were cemented with oppression. The walls of the buildings that tower over our cities were plastered with the desperation of poor black migrant labourers. Centuries of oppressive white rule engineered a white supremacist system so sophisticated that even 22 years into democratic rule we are still living with the inequality and poverty that were the core of anti black Apartheid ideology.

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South Africa currently tops the world inequality rankings. We are the most unequal society in the world. And the inequality of South Africa is racialised, that is a point we must never get tired of emphasising. Where there is inequality, within a framework of neo liberal capitalist politics, there is bound to be exploitation. And we need look no further than the private sector to witness such exploitation.

Exploitation is so ubiquitous in South Africa that in some industries it has become a pandemic. The working class literally lose their lives working to create wealth they will never taste. A case in point would be the silicosis issue in the mining, construction, ceramic, and other industries, where those who die get peanuts while the corporates continue making billions. These workers have to threaten war just to get a 5% salary increase, while managers and the upper echelons of corporates give themselves salary increases well above any inflation. Our people battle just to receive a living wage. Is it not a wonder, that they are still alive? That is the reality of the relationship between corporates and workers in South Africa, all through the year, year after year.

Why am I saying all this? I don’t really know, but somehow I think Mandela day and exploitation are linked in a way.

Picture this for a moment, and ask yourself if it makes sense. A corporate that exploits workers and gives them wages that are just enough to get them to work every shift, goes out and gives groceries to a poor woman and her children and does all the things that gives us butterflies in our stomachs on Mandela day, and then the very next day goes back to its modus operandi: exploitation of the man who is the husband of the woman and the father of the children who are recipients of the oh so generous gift of groceries. The thought certainly does something to my stomach, and I am not sure I want to call it butterflies.

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Mandela Day is an opportunity for the exploiting class to give themselves a sense that they have been absolved of their exploitive practices. It is an occasion that gives corporates a platform to mitigate the very inequalities that their presence compounds.

So, what I am saying is, the sincerity of the efforts of corporates on Mandela day are questionable. Sure, if their aim is to give a poor person a grocery pack for one day in a year, then they are on the right track. But if their aim is to contribute to ending inequality, fighting poverty, and building a more inclusive economy, then its going to take more than Mandela day orphanage painting activities. It will take them dismantling the structural, institutionalised, and systemic racism and inequality which are the basis of all their decisions, individual and collective.

It will take corporate SA realising that workers are co creators of the wealth they (corporate SA) enjoy. It will take white CEOs realising that transformation is not reverse racism, but a method to correct the injustices and inequalities their (white CEOs) forefathers engineered. It will take them realising that human life, black human life, is more important than profits. Mandela day means absolutely nothing without structural, institutional, and systemic change in South Africa. Surely we cannot attempt to change the material conditions of the poor by painting their homes for one day and go home to Sandton thinking that we have made a difference in the lives of the people of Alexandra. What the poor need is not Mandela day, what the poor need is a lifetime of living within or above a certain quality of life deemed proper for humanity.

I am not saying Mandela day is bad. No. It is always a good thing to do good. But when the rich perpetuate poverty and inequality and pacify the poor under the guise of Mandela day philanthropy, it becomes a big problem.

Before we take as granted the sincerity and genuineness of the efforts of corporate South Africa on Mandela day, let us ask ourselves: What will the rich do with themselves without the poor?

Linda Sidumo is a BCom graduate, a public servant, and chairperson of the Education Access Campaign NPO. Views expressed are strictly his own and do not represent the views of any organisation or group of persons.