I must admit to being a bit of Mandela Day Grinch. I know this admission is akin to treason in our country and the fact that it is being made by a passionate advocate of citizen participation makes it even worse. Not only that but I also run an NGO that would benefit greatly from people giving 67 minutes of their time in service on 18 July. So, why the negativity?
The idea of Mandela Day is extremely profound indeed; a nation of people stopping to serve those less fortunate than themselves for 67 minutes each year is a legacy that few in history other than Mandela could have left. However, in practice it is difficult for Mandela Day to live up to the extraordinary vision that it holds. To remind you, this vision is essentially two-fold; firstly, 67 minutes multiplied by hundreds of thousands of people adds up to a vast number of charitable hours. This can make a big difference in our country.
Secondly, by stopping to serve for 67 minutes, the hope is that our eyes will be opened to the vast array of needs around us; a sense of our common humanity will be activated and we will go on to serve throughout the course of the rest of the year and into the future. So, the actual 67 minutes on the day should be more of a catalyst than an end in itself. It should be a start-line for a shared reality characterised by purpose and service. We need to work hard to ensure that these noble aims are maintained and upheld because all too often, Mandela Day becomes an exercise in ticking boxes or a free pass out of the office. So often we have hosted groups of people at our homes for orphaned and abandoned babies in Durban only to find that their motivation for being there is not quite what Mandela Day is all about. This renders their service ineffectual and sometimes even counter-productive. If it is only to claim the value of your donation against your tax or to get a selfie to show the world how caring you are – both fine as a by-product of your service but not as an end in itself – then Mandela day can be more trouble than it is worth for NGO’s who are having to continue to do their work around people who are not actually there to help.
The other issue with Mandela Day is fairly and squarely the responsibility of those of us who run NGO’s. We need to be very well organised to get the best out of those who are serious about making a difference on the day. We need to give people clear choices of what they can do. We should correspond with participants before time, make sure we know what they are skilled in or passionate about and identify specific needs for them to work on within our organisation. We should be well prepared for their arrival in terms of having the necessary materials or tools for them to do their work. Their time must be honoured and well utilised; structured so that they are not sitting around doing nothing or involved in meaningless tasks. We must ensure that those 67 minutes are fulfilling and productive for people, otherwise why would they serve in our organisation – or any other organisation – again? If people are donating goods as well as their time, we must ensure that there is no duplication. There is nothing worse than someone arriving at your NGO with a donation of a brand-new fridge that you asked for only to bump into another person also bringing a fridge. Mandela Day is an opportunity for NGO’s to raise the profile of what we do; present a professional image to our supporters and play a role in creating sustainable giving and service.
It must be said that many NGO’s do Mandela Day extremely well. The Domino Foundation is one of them. For our part, we have put together a website called www.my67.org.za. Here we have categories that will appeal to just about everyone: care, collect, cook, craft, or contribute. Spend your 67 minutes caring for a baby; cook baby food for 67 minutes (either at home or on-site), do 67 minutes of DIY at our Hammarsdale Child Care Centre; use your crafting skills to help create a wall mural; collect second hand adult and baby clothes or toys. There is something for everyone, teams and individuals alike.
My hope is that this year – in the midst of such grotesque violations of the spirit and legacy of Mandela – we can restore the true meaning of Mandela Day and make a real difference in people’s lives.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole.