This is what Abram Louis Fischer popularly known as Bram Fisher who represented Nelson Mandela and others at the Rivonia Trial and passed on in May 1975, said at his own trial, “I am on trial, my Lord, for my political beliefs and for the conduct which those beliefs drove me to. My Lord, when a man is on trial for his political beliefs and actions, two courses are open to him. He can either confess to his transgressions and plead for mercy, or he can justify his beliefs and explain why he has acted as he did. Were I to ask for forgiveness today, I would betray my cause. That course, my Lord is not open to me. I believe that what I did was right… My Lord, there is another reason, and a more compelling reason for my plea….I accept, my Lord, the general rule that for the protection of a society, laws should be obeyed. But when the laws themselves become immoral, and require the citizen to take part in an organized system of oppression…then I believe that a higher duty arises. My conscience, my Lord, does not permit me to afford these laws such recognition as even a plea of guilty would involve. Hence, though I shall be convicted by this Court, I cannot plead guilty. I believe that the future may well say that I acted correctly.”
He was sentenced to life in prison. When he died, the Apartheid government’s prison services demanded his ashes go back to prison where they were subsequently lost… how cruel to his family this must have been.
One last quote which perhaps is quite apt for our times was this
“What is needed is for White South Africans to shake themselves out of their complacency, a complacency intensified by the present economic boom built upon racial discrimination. Unless this whole intolerable system is changed radically and rapidly, disaster must follow. Appalling bloodshed and civil war will become inevitable because, as long as there is oppression of a majority, such oppression will be fought with increasing hatred.”
Perhaps as relevant today as it was back then in a society now described in studies as the most unequal in the world.
Have things changed since then? Yes there are many changes. More people have access to homes, to electricity, water, sanitation, municipal services, education, accessible health care and social pensions. Racial and other forms of discrimination has been outlawed. But our society continues to be highly unequal. That has been the crux of the problem then and continues to be the crux of the problem now.
Nelson Mandela said, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others,”
Eighteen years later today we are debating the issues of social cohesion as the spectre of racism and inequality continues to plague our society. Martin Luther King spoke about the position of his people in the United States in 1968 and he said, “The American Negro will be living tomorrow with the very people against whom he is struggling today…..(Therefore) in the struggle for national independence one can talk about liberation now and integration later, but in the struggle for racial justice in a multiracial society where the oppressor and the oppressed are both “at home,” liberation must come through integration.” He goes on to ask, “Are we seeking power for power’s sake? Or are we seeking power to make the world and our nation better places to live.”
Clearly these great leaders of our times have identified that which is most important in life. They speak of humanness. We are seeing more and more the results of our lack of care when we snatch funds allocated for feeding our children to enrich ourselves, when we snatch pensions from our elderly, when we snatch funds allocated to care for our babies and when we snatch funds allocated for building homes for our people. There are so many more acts of shame that we continue to commit and justify it in the name of our past oppression.
Social cohesion is essential in our fractured society but we need to move past simply race on which apartheid was undoubtedly based to looking at the gross inequalities that are existing in our society. These inequalities can only be addressed when we can regain our moral fibre and act with a conscience to build equity in our society.
Gandhiji said that none of these things are new. In fact they are as old as the hills but no one is heeding them. Good governance can be based on the sermon on the mount, it can be based on the Ramayana and it can be based on all our scriptures if we but look for the words and heed them.
As we celebrate Tata Mandela’s birthday let us once again reflect on how much of what he said , how much of what he did for us and how much of his ideas are we trying to learn, to understand and to emulate. Are we trying even for a moment to build our lives on the basis of these ideas? If we do then we will indeed be able to realise the powerful dream of creating a society at peace with itself, where people will be people without any labels and where all life will be treated as precious, not just some life. Let us serve from the heart on Mandela day and begin to strive for the transformation of our society which will bring joy to all.
This transformation like gender awareness is not just possible through laws and policies and through governance and policing but through individuals and communities dedicating themselves to the transformation. When we point fingers at others let us always remember the famous words “Be the change you wish to see”! Let us discard from our lives indifference to the suffering of others; cynicism which drives us to criticise, to blame, to a feeling of hopelessness and leads us to do nothing ourselves; and selfishness which drives us to forget the values of honesty and truth but instead makes us greedy and we grab whatever we can however we can with no principles and no conscience!
On Mandela Day we can make a difference but not just for one day –rather for all times- renewed each year.