Where's South Africa's Obama?

Illustration for article titled Where's South Africa's Obama?

One by one, South Africa's Moses Generation is dying out—there was another funeral last Saturday—and its demise is raising uncomfortable questions about the yet-to-emerge Joshua Generation to lead South African into its Promised Land. These biblical references arise out of a speech Barack Obama delivered in Selma, Alabama last year, when the then 46-year-old Obama acknowledged the role old civil rights black leaders in creating a world in which his candidacy was possible. "Like Moses, they challenged Pharaoh, the princes, powers who said that some are atop and others are at the bottom, and that's how it's always going to be," Obama said. He thanked those leaders, but went on to say:

"As great as Moses was, despite all he did, leading a people out of bondage, he didn't cross the river to see the Promised Land." Obama spoke of God's advice to Moses about leaving it to the Joshua generation "to make sure it happens." It seems an appropriate comparison here in South Africa, not only regarding the unfinished businesses of getting to the Promised Land of a stable, deep-rooted democracy, but as to questions about where South Africa's Joshua Generation will lead them.


Here in South Africa, as the Moses elders exit, they leave behind a bitter and growing rift between the ruling African National Congress and COPE, a new party formed by breakaway ANC members unhappy with the party's leadership and direction.

Dr. Nthato Motlana, who died last week after a long battle with prostate cancer, was the latest of the Moses generation to pass on, and his life may be instructive to the pretenders on all sides about what true leadership is all about. Motlana took on the cancer of apartheid with the fearlessness characteristic of his generation—a generation that included his friend and later his patient, Nelson Mandela. Indeed, Motlana stood in the dock with Mandela in  1962, after thousands of South Africans had staged the largest non-violent protests ever. In the ensuing years, as protests and repression grew apace, the unflinching Motlana would be banned, imprisoned for nine months, denied a passport for 30 years and lived under constant threat from apartheid's brutal agents.

At his memorial service at the Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto, a haven and a bully pulpit for activists during struggle years, the 90-year-old Mandela sat stone-faced and sad as Motlana was remembered for what he did during that blighted time when he was the only doctor for the poor millions in Soweto and later for helping set up the first black-owned private clinic. And when students rose up en mass in the mid-70s to challenge the apartheid state, it was to Motlana they went for advice and counsel. And he was the one who removed the police bullets from many of their young bodies.

And as quickly as the minority white-ruled state banned their organizations, men like Motlana started new ones—ones that live in the memories of millions, like the Committee of Ten, the Black Parents' Association and the Soweto Civic Association. He was also remembered for setting up many businesses, including a grocery store to help support his family and where poor residents of Soweto could shop, even without money.

At the end of apartheid, he pioneered major business ventures, took the first black venture to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and has been hailed as the Father of Black Economic Empowerment, the voluntary program for white-owned businesses to share the wealth with blacks. His friend and colleague, prominent Soweto businessman Richard Maponya, recalled at the service that Motlana had "a nose for money."

I met Motlana during South Africa's dark days of turmoil and pain, and despite his own, he was almost always cheerful, his nimble, elfin-like figure almost always in motion, his words almost always bursting forth in rapid fire. He always seemed certain of what was possible, that South Africa would one day be free.


"In him, we gain [ed] the faith in our own potential … He was both the map and the compass for the people in search of their authentic destiny," said Sibongile Mkhabela, the youthful CEO of the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund. "He was the testimony to the cowed Soweto parents that the liberation struggle was not the pastime for the misguided young people. In him we came to understand that standing for the truth is for the elderly as well."

But even as Motlana took on the oppressive white government, he didn't let black people off the hook, always preaching the gospel of self-reliance; "to build societal institutions and businesses was an integral part of the struggle for liberation," as a speaker put it.


Motlana reached out to whites, "when it was politically incorrect to do so," wrote Ramotena Mabote in Sunday's Times. At a second service on Saturday, both country president Kgalema Motlanthe and ANC president Jacob Zuma, who plans to succeed him in next year's election, praised Motlana. Zuma said he was "principled to the end and never shifted in his loyalty to the party and the people."

Zuma was an unscheduled speaker at the Saturday funeral and walked a fine line between tribute and the old-fashioned practice of using funerals as political platforms when every other venue was banned. Zuma spoke about Motlana's death as an indication that the ANC was starting to lose its elders. He went on to say: "Our forefathers are leaving behind a legacy of an attentive public and a youth with the potential to take the country into the future."


But where are they—both the attentive public and the youth with the potential to take the country into the future? South Africans are increasingly doubtful about their future. As the country's flags flew at half-staff for Motlana, the highly respected Institute for Justice and Reconciliation released its annual Reconciliation Barometer indicating that less than half of the country's people believe the country is headed in the right direction—43 percent, down from 66 percent two years ago. And, according to the study, fewer than half of all

South Africans believe they can trust the country's leaders to "do what is right," down from two-thirds in 2004.


On the other hand, one potential bright spot: South Africa has had the largest voter registration turnout since 2000, with some 1.6 million new voters now on the roles, the majority of whom are in the 18- to 29-year-old age group.

This weekend COPE will hold its first convention. This, as the ANC continues its campaign to solidify its base around the country in preparation for next year's election. And so, the next big questions are how the politicians on all sides will honor the Motlana legacy they praised and what, if any, plans they have to help South Africa's Joshua Generation emerge and lead the country to the Promised Land.


Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a Johannesburg-based journalist and author of "New News Out of Africa: Uncovering the African Renaissance."