Today is Nelson Mandela’s (who, according to his family is doing much better) 95th birthday. Today is also Mandela Day. Mandela Day was started in 2009 by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, a year after Madiba’s 90th birthday. Later that year the UN officially declared July 18 to be International Nelson Mandela Day.
It’s not a public holiday, not even in South Africa. It’s rather (according to the official website) “a day dedicated to his life’s work and that of his charitable organisations, and to ensure his legacy continues forever.” The idea behind it is that, “Mr Mandela gave 67 years of his life fighting for the rights of humanity. All we are asking is that everyone gives 67 minutes of their time, whether it’s supporting your chosen charity or serving your local community. Mandela Day is a call to action for individuals – for people everywhere – to take responsibility for changing the world into a better place, one small step at a time, just as Mr Mandela did.” Wikipedia calls it, “…a global call to action that celebrates the idea that each individual has the power to transform the world, the ability to make an impact.”
I don’t have a problem with honouring the legacy of someone like Madiba. The impact he has had on South Africa and the rest of the world cannot be denied and he will forever be remembered along with people like Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Jr. Nor do I disagree that every individual can and should make an impact – in fact, it should be said more often.
But this 67 minutes-thing bugs me. Sure, it’s symbolic and everything, but wouldn’t it be of more worth to follow Madiba’s example of forgiveness and compassion for his fellow human beings all of the time? Because I guarantee you there will be a bunch of people who will reckon, once their 67 minutes are up, that they have now done their part and can now revert to the status quo for another year.
I’m especially watching our political bigwigs with much interest today. One’s visiting an orphanage, one’s volunteering at a family centre (for an ENTIRE 67 minutes – I smell a Nobel Peace Prize nomination), one’s opening a housing development, and so on and so forth. But tomorrow it will be back to the usual corruption, backstabbing of friends and enemies alike, lying to the public, and expanding private homes while the poor and marginalised are moved back to their regular place of pawns in the ongoing political struggle as we approach next year’s elections. It’s really an insult to Mandela’s legacy if you think about it.
In fact, I put people who do this 67 minutes thing (and only that) in the same category as Christians who are pious for one or two hours at church on Sunday (and not always even then) and then swears at someone who cuts them off as they leave the parking lot (where they were probably parked illegally in any case). Honouring Madiba’s legacy for 67 minutes on one day in a year is as idiotic as only showing your parents you appreciate them on Father’s and Mother’s Day, only contributing to charity as Christmastime and only sending people flowers once they are dead.
Shouldn’t we rather work every day to make a difference in people’s lives, to bring greater equality to the world? I know I’m being incredibly idealistic, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong or what I’m suggesting is impossible. Treating the person behind the checkout counter at the supermarket with respect instead of as a piece of furniture is making a mark. Giving part of your income every month to help those less fortunate is making your mark (and loose change in a collection box will do; you don’t have to write a cheque, though that will certainly help more people). Volunteering at church (or temple or mosque) or a youth centre or a homeless shelter once a week will make a tremendous difference in someone’s life (67 minutes, once-off…not so much). Listening to someone who’s having a bad day without wishing for them to get over it so you can leave but actually trying to have some empathy is often the greatest gift you can give. Become involved in a local school, supporting the teachers and students. Offer to watch your neighbours’ kids so they can have a romantic night out for the first time in years. Water your hospitalised neighbour’s garden. Actually go over and meet your neighbour.
There are so many things we can do and trying to do these things on a consistent basis makes much more sense to me than doing something once-off, stopwatch in hand, so you can feel better about yourself.
That’s why I want to ask you, observe Mandela Day by making a start. And then do it tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. That way we’ll honour the legacy of the man who wrote:
“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” – Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom.