“Dedication, Excellence and a Commitment to Serve”
I would like to thank the organisers for the honour bestowed on me, with the invitation to share my observations with you this evening, the 103rd Anniversary of Govan Mbeki’s birth. This honour is multiplied immensely by the fact that the 50th Anniversary of the arrests at Liliesleaf Farm occurred on 11 July 1963. Honouring Oom Govan by convening this lecture virtually on this significant anniversary of his arrest is so appropriate.
I want to acknowledge that many of you present would have had access to biographical details of Oom Gov. The previous lectures, by Professor Mbulelo Mzamane and Professor Colin Bundy dealt with these aspects at some length. What I would like to do is to contextualise the lessons of Oom Gov’s life for the South Africa of the present, and, of course, the future.
First, let me borrow from what others have said and written about Oom Gov. Professor Mzamane set the context when he wrote, “Oom Gov was a scholar, a teacher, and a visionary who paid meticulous attention to Prof Mzamane continues, “He forged for me transformative notions of the exercise of power, leadership and loyalty.” Professor Colin Bundy added to this narrative when he wrote, ”Time and again, when interviewing Govan Mbeki about his years in Port Elizabeth, one is struck by how hard he drove himself. In the first place he was a full-time journalist, running the New Age office, attending meetings and fund-raising events then filing news stories through to the head office in Cape Town. He also wrote more analytical and theoretical pieces for the left-wing periodicals Liberation and Fighting Talk.” Comrade Ruth First wrote, “Govan has a sharp mind, intolerant of the foolish and the faint-hearted. But in between meetings, and the drafting of circulars and resolutions, the stern disciplinarian becomes the gentle and considerate friend.” The ANC mourned his passing in 2001 with the words,” The ANC was his family, the struggle was his life. and worked intensively with the Independent Development Trust to get schools in townships renovated because of his firm belief that education could not be deferred.
The context described in the topic provided, “Dedication, Excellence and a Commitment to Serve”, could not be more appropriate than in the life of our comrade, Govan Archibald Mvuyelwa Mbeki. The fundamental issues before us relate not to whether we have learnt to memorise the writings of Oom Gov, but whether we are worthy successors to the mantle of “scholar, teacher, organiser, leader and visionary”.
So we have to pay meticulous attention to whether we have learnt the context, whether we rigorously ask of ourselves if we possess the same idealism, whether we drive ourselves as hard, and set the same high standards for our performance as Oom Gov and his generation did. The big difference is that they organised and built under conditions of severe repression, whilst we do so under conditions of freedom that their sacrifices created.
I do not wish to be misunderstood or misquoted. The perspective I borrow from Oom Gov and others of his generation, is that our struggle for liberation created the conditions for transformation. Oom Gov said of the transition, “The task of nation-building has begun. We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans will be able to walk tall, without fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity in a nation at peace with itself and the world."
Please note the tense used “we shall build a society” and “will be able to walk tall”.
So, without diminishing the enormous contribution that we are making as the democratically elected government to improve on the living standards of our people, conscious of the scale of the backlogs that still abound, we must nevertheless ask whether we are assiduously working to build the society that Oom Gov describes in those few words.
These values and aspirations are well articulated in our Constitution, and in particular in its preamble and founding provisions.
In the preamble, we commit to:
- heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
- lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
- improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
- build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.
These are huge commitments, the delivery of which is placed in our hands, by the achievements of our struggle. The question is how we take these forward.
When the National Planning Commission set about its work to develop a plan, the first task it undertook was to diagnose the challenges that present as we seek to fulfil the commitments of our Constitution. In the diagnostic we raised 9 challenges.
- too few people work;
- the standard of education for most black learners is of poor quality;
- infrastructure is poorly located, under-maintained and insufficient to foster higher growth;
- spatial patterns exclude the poor from the fruits of development;
- The economy is overly and unsustainably resource intensive;
- A widespread disease burden is compounded by a failing public health system;
- Public services are uneven and often of poor quality;
- Corruption is widespread; and
- South Africa remains a divided society.
To this, we added after consultation, four further challenges, namely:
- The need to focus on community safety;
- The need for a reappraisal of social protection policies;
- The need to pay attention to an integrated and inclusive rural economy; and
- A consciousness about maximising the responsibilities and opportunities of South Africa in Africa and the world.
The National Development Plan is essentially about addressing these challenges in a connected, measurable and determined way. The question before us is whether we possess that rigour and determination – not to debate policy in yet more rounds, but whether we are determined to “Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person”. The policy refinements can and must happen on the basis of application and learning because there cannot exist some perfect policy for all time.
Oom Govan writes of organisation ”Depending on conditions, the Inqindi structure has had to change, and will continue to do so if it is to survive under changing conditions. It is very important the membership appreciate this point. Otherwise insistence on getting it to do things as they were done before under a completely different set of conditions, or to do things for which it is not designed, may create difficulties that may not only retard progress but may So, understanding the conditions that enable, unlock and advance change is fundamentally important.
Implemented, the City that lifted our spirits with the strength of its resistance to apartheid time and again, and the City named after our icon, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.” Now, imagine to my horror, when I read the results and saw that they had indeed secured 26 out of the 60 Wards – a mere 5 wards short of a majority!
So, I ask again, what exactly are we missing?
The same trends are in evidence in so many of the municipalities that have long been our traditional strongholds. Do we pause for reflection? Or do we merely want to proceed as before believing that no adaptation is necessary, and that our history is a sufficient guarantee of our future?
We have observed with consternation, and denounced the “faeces flingers” of Cape Town. We have correctly and roundly attacked the DA for failing to ensure that the poor have access to decent sanitation, without giving those who misbehave any cause to believe that their actions are justifiable. We later learnt that these horrible tactics were first used in Rhini, where Ayanda Kota led a protest that dumped faeces in the foyer of the Grahamstown City Hall, as a statement of outrage against the failures of an ANC Municipality, even before these events occurred in Cape Town.
Take a drive through this Province, or any other, for that matter, and observe the amount of filth and low quality of services for the poor. How do we explain this?
Or, we should pause to reflect on the education outcomes for black learners who attend schools in townships and rural areas. We can pause to reflect on the conditions under which we may expect learning and teaching to take place, and we can look at how long we have budgeted for infrastructure improvements in education, that were never done. But we must ask why it is that teachers, who are our members of allied trade unions, show so little regard for the enormous task at hand. We must use the examination results as a guide, and while there is much focus on Grade 12, there is a more compelling challenge presented by the Annual National Assessment results at Grades 3, 6 & 9 – waiting until Grade 12 merely leaves this situation much too late for correction.
And then, remind ourselves that Oom Gov was a teacher first and last. We must remind ourselves about the profound concerns he expressed about the manner in which black youth had their opportunities snuffed out under apartheid – whether by Bantu education or the losses consequent from resistance to it. Then we must ask why this is happening on our watch?
Or, pause to reflect on the quality of public health care provided under democracy. I have been very affected by an experience that Aunt Phyllis Ntantala (the mother of Cde Pallo Jordan) had at Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital in Mthatha, she wrote about, as follows:
I was born and raised in the Eastern Cape. On a visit home I collapsed on the night of June 7 and was admitted as an emergency case to the intensive care unit at the Nelson Mandela Hospital. There I was stripped and lay naked in bed under an obviously used sheet for two days until a member of my family managed to bring me some night clothes. In all my 80-plus years I have never felt as insulted as I did for those two days and nights lying naked in that bed.
Yet this is a modern, state-of-the-art facility, well designed and with the latest equipment. Unfortunately, however, some of the equipment malfunctions. Toilet tanks, for example, do not fill up automatically and remain dry, with the result that waste is not flushed away. Nobody seemed to know why this should be so, or why lights in the wards are dim or do not function at all, or why there are no lights or bells for patients to summon help.
There are also no side rails on the beds, something regarded as a must in most hospitals, even in non-intensive or critical care units. Why this should be so I was unable to ascertain. It may have been through poor usage over time.
The question that confronts each of us is why does this happen? We thank Aunt Phyllis for telling the story as articulately as she does. But we know that she speaks for many who do not have the skills to tell their stories and for whom this is their lived experience. Then we must ask, in the spirit of our heroes whose example we so cherish, “Is this the best we can offer our people?”
Or, we might pause to reflect on the emerging outcomes of Black Economic Empowerment. We are all aware of our responsibilities required by Clause 9(2) of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution that states, “To promote the achievement of equality, legislative and other measures designed to protect persons, or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination may be taken.” But in its execution, do we not limp towards the kind of society that tends to palce the individual over the needs of groups? Is this not an unintended consequence that we should engage with continually, not in order to stall until some moment of policy perfection arrives, but in order to ensure that we avoid the pitfalls of the risk of the enrichment of individuals, while the vast majority remains trapped in abject poverty.
Or, when we observe the inappropriate behaviour by some traditional leaders and some who mutilate young men by the carelessness perpetrated in the name of “culture”, how do we respond? Oom Gov, when he engaged with the people of Pondoland during and after the “Peasant’s Revolt”, engaged with issue of traditional leadership.
" As the people began to realise their strength , they set about creating their own machinery of administration, so as to sever practically all connection, with the Chiefs and the Bantu Commissioners. As area after area came under the influence of the movement, informal people’s courts arose, and they administered a popular justice as a promise of the democratic way of life that the peasants one day would have. It was the glimmer of real self rule that made people withdraw their cases from the Chief's and the Commissioners' courts, and to pay fines-light by comparison, even for those who had committed the serious offence of supporting Bantu Authorities- with the We might believe that our noble history will carry us through, but then we must remind ourselves as the author Tony Judt does.
But precisely because history is not foreordained, we mere mortals must invent it as we go along – and in circumstances, as old Marx rightly pointed out, not entirely of our own making. We shall have to ask the perennial questions again, but be open to different answers. We need to sort out to our own satisfaction what aspects of the past we wish to keep and what made them possible. Which circumstances were unique? And which circumstances could we, with sufficient will and effort, reproduce?
Judt’s take is a refreshing and contextual exposition of the lines by Karl Marx that we so frequently quote from the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The traditions of all dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
The example of Oom Govan weighs very heavily on us.
He challenged repeatedly on all manner of aspects of struggle, of organisation and of the way in which we question. Perhaps part of the challenge that confronts us is that we haven’t listened carefully enough to what he was drawing to our attention. So, for example, when we look at our relations with the people, we are reminded of his warning.
“We should not make the mistake of thinking that the people who show up at rallies are members. It is committed membership, which we can call upon to embark on a mass campaign throughout the country, that is crucial. To achieve this level of organisation and mobilisation requires that we put in massive human and financial resources to help build the membership of the ANC.”
With Oom Gov there was never any let-up. He led from the front with examples of sacrifice, of curiosity, of determination and of boldness. Joe Slovo compared him to Georges-Jacques Danton, who is credited as having led the French Revolution. Danton famously proclaimed, “L’Audace, encore l’audace, toujours l’audace!”
(Courage, more courage, always courage!)
We are reminded by Oom Gov, who wrote, “future historians have the responsibility to study this period of our history, and make their own judgements. In doing so, I am sure they will abide by the dictum that revolutions, even modest ones, are made not in our dreams, but in concrete, historical situations. What we have achieved, though far from perfect, is a starting point.
Are we the rightful heirs of that tradition of “Dedication, Excellence and a Commitment to Serve”? Let us proclaim, “Yes we are!”.