South Africa’s long-standing African National Congress (ANC) party – which celebrates its centenary birthday in 2012 – is split following the unceremonious dismissal of President Thabo Mbeki. And the traditional extended family in that country is suffering under the weight of the HIV/AIDS scourge as grandmothers grow weary of taking care of a new generation and as young children try to assume the duties of head of households in the absence of adults.
Faced with these and other harsh realities 15 years after the country’s first democratic elections, former CNN Johannesburg bureau chief and correspondent, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, suggests that South Africa is at a crossroads in its young democracy.
“While millions of South Africans have been lifted out of poverty, put in homes, provided with water and electricity, millions more are still mired in the same heart-wrenching conditions they lived in under apartheid,” Hunter-Gault said in the keynote address at the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund (Canada) gala fundraiser last week to celebrate Mandela’s 90th birthday and the local fund’s 10th anniversary.
“And even those who now wear the mantle of leadership acknowledge the country is failing its children in far too many ways. The vast majority of the country’s Black children are not being educated for the kind of modern society South Africa already is and is becoming even more so.”
Hunter-Gault, who also worked from Johannesburg as the chief correspondent in Africa for National Public Radio from 1997-1999, attributed the failing education system to insufficient Black teachers who, she says, are not equipped to educate students, having being crippled themselves by the second-class education imposed by apartheid. She added that the same apartheid-era education system has left South Africa with a shortage of educated public servants to turn around the massively complex education system.
The 66-year-old award-winning journalist made civil rights history as the first African-American woman to enter the University of Georgia, where she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism in 1962. Her book, In My Place, is a memoir of her experiences at America’s oldest public university which was established in 1785.
She has also authored New News Out of Africa: Uncovering Africa’s Renaissance, which challenges facile assumptions that Africa is a dark and hopeless continent ravaged by death, disaster, disease and despair.
“There is an abundance of all of the above, but that is not the full picture of Africa,” she said. “Getting out the new news of Africa is critical to the mission of the Mandela Children’s Fund as it is to the mission of all those people in organizations attempting to better the fight of people who only ask for the basic human rights enjoyed by citizens the world over. But the negative portrayal of the continent works against the very things that organizations like this one are trying to achieve.
“These are difficult days for traditional media. Newspapers and TV networks are cutting back and scaling down and even in the best of times, their coverage of Africa was scant, except for the four d’s (death, disaster, disease and despair). Now, with very few exceptions, their coverage of the continent is all but non-existent at a time when the continent needs it the most. I hope that organizations like the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund makes it one of their priorities to see that the new news that’s the good news from the continent get its fair hearing.”
The NMCF (Canada) was founded following Mandela’s historic visit to Toronto’s SkyDome, now the Rogers Centre, in November 1998 when nearly 40,000 children paid tribute to South Africa’s first democratically elected president.
“This organization has come a long way over the last decade, thanks to the support of thousands of Canadians and their dedication to Nelson Mandela’s vision of a better world for children and youth,” acknowledged NMCF (Canada) chair Michael Eubanks. “We will continue to be a vehicle through which Canadians all across the country can respond to inadequacies and inequalities facing South Africa’s young people.”
On his last visit to Canada in November 2001, Mandela was granted honorary Canadian citizenship making it the first time in history the distinction was conferred on a living person. Late Swedish businessman, Raoul Wallenberg, who saved over 100,000 Hungarian Jews during the Second World War, the Dalai Lama, and Burmese politician and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Aung San Suu Kyi, are the only other persons to be granted honorary Canadian citizenship.
NMCF (Canada) board member, Paulette Senior, said Mandela has had a huge impact on her life.
“He has helped to shape my political and social view of the world,” said the YWCA Canada’s chief executive officer. “The vision he created is that of a world where equality is an imperative and the value of humanity is not about skin colour or social class. It’s actually about who we are as human beings and that each of us has an equal right to freedom, justice, peace, security and all the things that are important to humanity.
“To me, he embodies the spirit of the world we now live in. It’s because of him that we have a Barack Obama. I am very clear of that. It’s also because of Nelson Mandela that I am standing here today.”
Proceeds from the fundraiser will go to South Africa’s disadvantaged young people.