Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Online Letter
Dear friends and fellow South Africans,
There is reason for me to dedicate my newsletter to the death of a man, and to pay tribute to his life. This reason does not lie merely in his having been a close friend of mine. Neither does it lie in the great services that he rendered to South Africa and the cause of its democratic transformation.
The reason for me to write about the death of Professor Lawrie Schlemmer, which happened last week, lies in the need for our country to begin recognizing the criteria to be used in identifying our national heroes and heroines.
Too often, on the way to our liberation we have elevated to the status of hero, if not the mythical status of icon, people to whom no specific deed, action or record could be attached. Too often we have equated a high-ranking position with greatness which ought to be remembered. This is natural, and should be expected of a young Republic, which tries to find its self-worth and dignity in elevating its own leaders. But it should not be accepted under all circumstances.
South Africa, like any other Republic, needs to recognize greatness and use it as an example both for future generations and for the leaders of the present. However, for this function to be performed, we must not yield to the temptation of graduating each high-ranking politician, minister or leader into a great man or woman, or a national hero, upon his or her death.
Too often this is done, and it is counterproductive. Because none of these beatifications will survive critical scrutiny and will, in the end, make our Republic look weaker.
We need to avoid spreading honours and praises onto people who are merely associated with those who may have deserved them, because of being their parents or children. We must also stop believing that holding public office immediately translates into having done something good for the Republic, as has often happened in the past seventeen years, just as it did in the preceding season of history, and as is the case throughout the world. Often those who have held public offices have done little in concrete terms which deserves historical mention.
I say this because, on the contrary, somebody like Lawrie Schlemmer never held any public office, and yet made an immense contribution to making our Republic what it is now.
He did not deliver public speeches, ride around in motorcades of limousines, or attend State dinners, shaking hands with foreign dignitaries. He did not live in the limelight and his name may have remained unknown to the majority of our people. Yet, he spent his entire life amongst the people of this country, conducting social and political research which has been at the foundation of a great deal of the academic thinking which contributed so much towards our liberation.
Professor Lawrie Schlemmer was one of the first to cross the racial divide and enable a then deeply divided population to begin communicating with and understanding each other. He led the first research which developed the academic tools and methodology to explore and understand what the people of this country really feel and want; beyond what they say and the little which they are able to express when they get the opportunity of voting once every five years.
Our people are often not used to expressing themselves and may have difficulty in identifying what they really want. Often, all the available options are not laid down before them or fully understood.
For this reason, because of the research he conducted, Professor Schlemmer gave to some of the most disenfranchised people of our country a voice greater and more powerful than they acquired through political representation.
Professor Schlemmer was a man of immense courage. He had such strength of his convictions and fundamental understanding of the difference between right and wrong, that he did not give two hoots what his peers thought. He knew that time and again history would prove him right, as it in fact did.
He was on my side when we ventured where no South African had gone before. We launched a great institutional initiative, defying all the barriers of Apartheid as well as the mindset which, at the time, was prevalent both in the black and white communities. In 1980 we launched together the Buthelezi Commission, which was predicated on the firm belief that black and white South Africans could work together to forge a shared and mutually beneficial future.
This today has become a truism and an axiom of our democracy. But at the time it was an immensely politically incorrect statement, not only for the white community - which did not see why it should share its life, riches and country with the black community - but also for many segments of the black community who saw white South Africans not as compatriots, but as enemies to be defeated.
On that occasion, Professor Schlemmer was one of those who worked with me to build the many invisible bridges which consolidated over the years and made it possible for future political developments to take place, ranging from the formation of the UDF to the final holding of all-inclusive negotiations leading to the constitutional settlement of 1994 and our first democratic elections.
Many people jumped on board and took advantage of the preparatory work conducted by heroes like Professor Lawrie Schlemmer between the mid-seventies and the mid-eighties. When the euphoria of the moment came, it was easy to partake in such initiatives. But when people like Professor Schlemmer embraced them, it was difficult and very dangerous to one's life and career.
Professor Schlemmer continued the commitment he began in the Buthelezi Commission throughout the work which finally led to the KwaZulu Natal Indaba of 1986, which brought together intellectuals, businessmen and politicians throughout South Africa and across racial divides.
The Report of the KwaZulu Natal Indaba was so compelling that, even though it refused to give us a Joint Legislative Authority, the Apartheid regime was nonetheless forced to concede to us the establishment of the KwaZulu and Natal Joint Executive Authority, which was the first interracial government in the history of South Africa.
In that Government, both black and white learned a lot about one another and proved that we could work together as South Africans in our common interest, laying the foundation for what had to come.
Books can be written about the work that Lawrence Schlemmer conducted in South Africa, and undoubtedly they will be written. Many books which Lawrie Schlemmer wrote stand as monuments of what he contributed. Several generations of academics trained or influenced by him bear testimony of his greatness.
As far as I am concerned, I regard him not only as one of my closest friends, but as one of the greatest children of the South African soil. For this reason, I have no hesitation in paying tribute to him as one of South Africa's real heroes. I lament his departure with the promise that his life's work shall not only be remembered, but treasured, so that it may continue to inspire the building of our democracy and future generations of leaders.
Yours in the service of the nation,
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP