If our past is given too much weight it can blind us to being accountable

The story of Sibongile Mani is intriguing, tragic and phenomenally educational all at the same time.


Maybe it is how it exposes our complicated and often treacherous relationship with money.

Yet for a developing nation like ours, the lessons which can be learned from it are innumerable.

Understandably perhaps, we frame our view of current events from a historical perspective. This is mostly natural, since all knowledge we refer to is essentially from the past. So our experience of the past is often given too much weight.

It is this nature of knowledge and experience which sometimes taints our understanding of the present. By tainting our understanding of our actions in the present, it sometimes compromises our future, especially when we are not aware of this effect.

Sibongile Mani’s grandmother, Nombulelo Mani, distressed and traumatised, perhaps just as much as her granddaughter, demonstrated this when she was interviewed about her granddaughter’s ill-conceived spending spree.

“They must just please forgive my child. She was tempted by the devil and I am sure she did not mean to do what she did. This child grew up poor. What was she supposed to do?”

My natural inclination is to excuse the grandmother and wish this situation away without pointing out the glaring but well-meaning inaccuracies in her statement. But this is where the real problem lies for people like us, who have been exposed to poverty and an infamous history.

It is all too easy for us to renege on taking responsibility for our actions. Instead we are too quick to blame the situation, the devil or poverty, like grandma Mani, or any blamable thing within reach.

What this inadvertently does is to rob us blind of the lessons we could learn from each of our actions so that such actions, if undesirable, cannot be repeated again.

This alone, very possibly is at the centre of Africa’s seemingly stubborn refusal to join the world stage as a beacon of hope for human development.

Our bias towards defending those who are seen as poor, defenseless and victimised causes us to rally around them, protecting them even against their own mistakes.

As a result, those we protect from their own mistakes never learn from them, and often, neither do we. This is exactly what we did to the disastrous and now monstrous Jacob Zuma.

We then end up locked in a circle of repeating old mistakes which have been made countless times by others.

Not only do we rob ourselves of the lessons that can be learned from our own mistakes, but we lock in our children to take up the same attitude towards mistakes, dooming them to repeat the same mistakes we also repeated. It is unnecessary, wasteful and tragic.

Grandma Mani’s statement that Sibongile was tempted by the devil, does not in any way excuse Sibongile from her actions.

She took money she knew did not belong to her and used it for trivial purchases which add nothing to her most valuable pursuit to date, her education. The devil cannot be held to account here. It is Sibongile who can and must be held accountable.

Even more dangerous and relevant for us is Grandma Mani’s assertion that Sibongile “grew up poor”, as if this is a licence for Sibongile to act irresponsibly in the face of access to resources, particularly, ill-gotten money.

In actual fact, Sibongile has a responsibility to act responsibly as a citizen and a student leader because she knows where she comes from and what vast distances she and many like her still need to cover.

Her proximity to poverty should have galvanised her to seek a much more long-term, honest and sustainable means to eradicate poverty in her own life, her grandma’s and the thousands of NSFAS needy fellow students.

This certainly could not be done through partying away more than R800000 in 73 days!

Perhaps, not unlike Grandma Mani, being a largely Bible-reading nation, we misunderstood Luke 12:48, “… From everyone who has been given much, much will be required… ”

This certainly does not excuse those who regard themselves as poor from being expected to give much. In actual fact, it is from expecting much of themselves and each other that they will be given much … eh, responsibility.

So, Sibongile mntan’am, face this and learn from it, we will learn along with you.

TimesLIVE/ Bantu Mniki


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