Johannesburg may be a 17-hour Delta flight away from Atlanta, but the “City to Busy to Hate” is ever near in the minds of South Africans remembering Nelson Mandela, the late anti-apartheid crusader who became the nation’s first president after the segregationist system was abolished in 1994.
That’s according to Sello Hatang, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, who spent last weekend in Atlanta celebrating what would have been Mr. Mandela’s 100th birthday and marking the fifth anniversary of his passing. Mr. Mandela visited Atlanta at least twice in the 1990s, receiving a massive welcome each time.
“I think it’s important for us to always remind ourselves of our connections, that we didn’t choose Atlanta; Atlanta chose us,” Mr. Hatang said, “because during our difficult times during apartheid, cities like Atlanta chose to also be part of our struggle, which was thousands of miles away.”
And just as surging racial tensions in the U.S. show that the work of the Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement remains unfinished half a century on, Mr. Hatang said South Africa is also seeing the need to actively preserve Mr. Mandela’s legacy.
Mr. Mandela himself likened his political ascent to summiting a mountain, only to look down and see how many valleys were left to cross. He ended his autobiography, “The Long Walk to Freedom”, with a call not to linger at the peaks of deceptive and temporary success. The triumph of political power was simply the first step to transforming what would become known as the “Rainbow Nation.”
Recent events have shown how quickly things can deteriorate. South African President Jacob Zuma resigned in February as his African National Congress prepared to remove him in the face of cascading corruption allegations that shook public confidence in the party of Mandela. All this while with economic growth slowing, worsening the problem of inequality for the black majority. Youth unemployment, for example, sits at about 50 percent.
“If there is any statement that should remind us of (Mandela’s) vision, it is that we lingered in part. We lingered because we thought we had arrived. We thought that democracy was within reach and in lingering … corruption took over,” Mr. Hatang said in an interview with Global Atlanta on the morning of the gala dinner hosted by the foundation.
And internationally, South Africa is facing threats to the solidarity it believed it had with partners like the U.S. as leaders embrace nationalist ideologies, Mr. Hatang said.
Via Twitter, U.S. President Donald Trump has seized on reports that black South Africans are killing whites and taking their land. The issue is controversial, but many news outlets have said white nationalists have sensationalized the issue on social media to use it as a rallying cry in both countries.
Such perceptions are particularly galling to some black South Africans, for whom land reform is key to righting injustices of the past in a place where a white minority subjugated the black majority by seizing land and barring them from owning it.
Since taking office this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa has made land reform a centerpiece of his administration, sparking fears of “land grabs” by the government. This week a committee vote to move debate forward on a constitutional amendment that would allow for expropriation without compensation. The president sought to allay fears this week, noting that the process will be orderly and fair to foreign investors.
“We didn’t choose Atlanta; Atlanta chose us.”
Whatever happens, the issue has personal resonance for South Africans. Mr. Hatang says that while his ancestors were land owners, his father worked in the mines and his mother as a domestic worker for a white family. They died poor, without much to show for their decades of labor.
Those who want to see change can’t ignore the ripple effects of history, he said.
“Reckoning with our past is the key to us understanding who we can be in the future,” he said, noting that places like South Africa and the American South have a responsibility to be an example to the world.
“It’s a global thing — that those who are dispossessed, because for the deep history of colonialism and slavery, need to also see justice delivered to those who are still to be born,” he said. “For black people who are born in an environment in which it depends which ticket or lottery card that you draw, being born in the right place, in the right family and sometimes in the right color, it affects your chances. It should be that every child is born in an environment that lets them thrive.”
Especially given the outsized influence that former Atlanta mayor and United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young has had in his country, South Africa and others on the continent will be watching how the new administration of Keisha Lance Bottoms addresses issues core to Atlanta’s black community, he said.
“If Atlanta needs to do anything, it’s to always bring to the center those who are ‘othered,’ who are left out,” Mr. Hatang said.
Policy can only do so much; creating an environment in which people can frankly discuss the past while working toward the future is something that leaders have to aim to instill in their populations. It’s a multi-generational effort that requires endurance, he said, and that’s why it’s so important that Atlanta and South Africa continue to work together.
“There’s nothing that gives more energy than when your comrades who were within you during those dark, difficult times keep reassuring you that you’re on the right path or when we’re wrong, call us out.”
Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed traveled to South Africa twice during his two terms. The second trip targeting collaborations with Cape Town stirred up controversy over the personnel who traveled and the $90,000 cost of their business-class airfare. Cape Town and Atlanta had signed an agreement to collaborate on urban issues and promote mutual investment.
Read Global Atlanta’s coverage of Atlanta’s reaction to Mr. Mandela’s death: ‘City Too Busy to Hate’ Reflects on Nelson Mandela’s Human Rights Legacy
Learn more about the foundation at www.nelsonmandela.org.