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Active Citizenry and Transformative Change in South Africa

by Sello Hatang

At this year’s Nelson Mandela Lecture, Bill Gates spoke on the theme ‘Living Together’. Gates spoke compellingly to the fact that Africa can achieve the future it aspires to. But to do so, we need to learn to do things differently and to find creative ways of empowering our youth to make a difference. We need to find sustainable solutions to what have become critical human challenges.

Gates is an example of the extraordinary steps an individual can make in transforming society. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has altered the lives of millions of people – particularly those in Africa – increasing life expectancy and education levels, and almost eliminating certain types of diseases. In addition, Gates has encouraged other HNW individuals to sign ‘The Giving Pledge’, which is a commitment by these individuals to distribute a substantial percentage of their individual fortunes to philanthropic causes. As of March 2016, over $365 billion has been pledged by HNW individuals globally as part of this initiative. In this way, Gates represents the personally invested active citizenship role that HNW individuals can play


For Africa to thrive, for the potential of our youth to be unleashed, and for us to be successful in our drive to do things differently, it is necessary to fundamentally change the prevailing structures and systems of power that have created deep-rooted patterns of poverty and inequality in our country. Indeed, one of the underlying questions that underpin the advocacy work of the Nelson Mandela Foundation is: How do we reform the historical imbalances and privileges caused by centuries of exploitation and inequality? I believe that our greatest challenge as a nation is how to effect the structural change necessary for human beings to live together, rather than against one another.

I am one of few who, despite the entrenched power structures and systems, escaped the path that was determined for me. I grew up in the impoverished mining township of Khuma in the North West province. Through many sacrifices made by my family and my community – including a combination of a bursary from the municipality and the Catholic Church, a study loan, and the support of my grandmother’s pension – I was able to attend university. Moving to Mamelodi township in Pretoria, it was – once again – the community that welcomed me, parented me, and was my family. I received mentoring and support, I learnt to access networks of social and other forms of capital, and ultimately I became the chief executive of one of our country’s leading civil society institutions.

This kind of ‘living together’ empowers a young person from any background to dream big – knowing that his community, and his country, will create an enabling environment for him to thrive, despite conditions of inequality and poverty. But, as long as I am one of the few, and as long as the great majority of our youth feel excluded systemically, we face an enormous challenge. And it is this challenge that, as a country, we must prioritise.

State-driven policy interventions play their part, but South African businesses and HNW individuals can and should be putting in place and supporting initiatives that go beyond CSI programmes and charitable donations, and are directed at making fundamental structural

change. All citizens – individual and corporate – need to play a leading part in addressing structural privilege and ending systemic racism in the workplace. Steps that could be taken in this regard could include, for example, a serious consideration of gender inequality, or a BBBEE policy that goes beyond a ‘checkbox’ exercise and genuinely seeks to capacitate black workers.

In Madiba’s State of the Nation Address in 1995, he stated:

We cannot build or heal our nation, if – in both the private and public sectors, in the schools and universities, in the hospitals and on the land, in dealing with crime and social dislocation – we continue with business as usual, wallowing in notions of the past. Everywhere and in everything we do, what is now required is boldness in thinking, firmness in resolve and consistency in action.

Our destiny as a country lies primarily in the hands of South Africans and it is imperative that those in a privileged position – be it through capital, networks or influence – work together in fundamentally altering the patterns of inequality and injustice and in empowering our youth. We need firm resolve from an active citizenry from all walks of life to move South Africa onto a positive trajectory of transformation. The onus lies on all citizens to make greater steps, and to foster a culture of transformative change.

Sello Hatang is Chief Executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. He is a former director of the South African History Archive (SAHA) at Wits University and serves on the boards of SAHA and the Open Democracy Advice Centre. He is also a founding member of the Advisory Council of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution.