Wednesday, 23 July 2014

67 Minutes of Nonsense - The Trouble With Mandela Day

Last week, South Africa celebrated Mandela Day. 18 July was Nelson Mandela's birthday. At some point, someone decided that the best way to honour the legacy of Mandela was to encourage people to volunteer 67 minutes on his birthday to help others. This sounds like a good idea. Replace volatile rallies, endless speeches and the risk of the legacy being politicised, with getting people to commit to helping others.

Instead, South Africa has managed to turn voluntourism into a national sport. Yes, I know local volunteering normally avoids the pitfalls of voluntourism; this doesn't. All the problems with rich (white) people popping over to Africa/Asia/South America to "volunteer" by hugging smiling babies for a week-long vacation, crammed into one day of the year. Into 67 minutes, even. This is not volunteering to work with children, to read to the elderly or to work with food security projects. It's not the same thing when doing these things for 67 minutes on one day of the year makes you a good guy or a good company or a good Friday afternoon ladies book club group.

And of course, not only can people feel great about their act of "selfless charity", but they get to talk about it too. South Africa's media very obligingly talks of little else and creates plenty of space for individuals and businesses to publicize how wonderful they are for taking part in this charade.

For business, and particularly corporate social investment departments, it's a very welcome gift. Instead of all the bother of sorting through endless funding requests or going out and checking that NGOs actually exist, they can just "do Mandela Day". What better way to motivate your staff than to pay for them (transport, T-shirts, packed lunches) to spend 67 minutes volunteering at a soup kitchen or donating clothes at an orphanage or (this year's run-away favourite) handing out food parcels at under-resourced schools? What better way to spend your CSI budget - tax-deductible, minimal effort and all over in just one day?

Double-bonus for businesses, government loves the idea. In fact, they're taking the lead. This year, for example, the Ministry of Sports and Recreation spent their 67 minutes, among other things, handing over sports and recreation equipment. Environmental Affairs dedicated their Mandela Day to running a campaign about recycling and cleaning up the environment. It should be noted that South Africa struggles with very serious service delivery protests because many government departments fail, most of the time, to do the things they're mandated to do (like handing over sports and rec equipment and cleaning up the environment).

The Mandela Day circus also reinforces all the things we do not want to reinforce: the idea that "development" is about duty-bound, wealthy givers and abject, grateful recipients. The idea that hand-outs that "make people happy" should be encouraged (67 kinds of SWEDOW, for example). Perhaps the worst of all: the idea that anyone can do social development work. In a country (and on a continent) that desperately needs skilled professionals (including in government roles - no, not you, millions of irrelevant DIY one-woman-saving-the-brown-babies South African NGOs) to fix the problems, we're putting all our focus on what has turned into a carefully crafted publicity platform for middle-class and rich people, government departments and businesses to look good without actually doing any good.

It's horrifying to see the legacy of a man who spent his entire life working and fighting to change a terribly oppressive, unequal and unacceptable system, "celebrated" in a way that so strongly reinforces the status quo and the myth that handing out food parcels is a) doing enough and b) making a difference. It isn't. And we should stop saying that it is. That's the trouble with Mandela Day.

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