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This week I participated in the annual celebration of Mandela Day with some of my coworkers at SACTWU. Mandela Day, celebrated every July 18th on Mandela’s (and my dad’s) birthday, encourages volunteering for 67 minutes to honor Mandela’s 67 years of social justice. For our service, we drove over to an elementary school to help revive their library.

Upon arriving, I was disheartened to see the condition of the library. It was a rather small room with a layer of grime covering every wall and bookshelf. The books looked to be from the 80s at best. There were tiny geckos, spiders, and even a single cockroach scuttling around the floor. Our mission was to clean up the space and give the walls an encouraging yellow coat.

While we spent more than the designated 67 minutes on the project, even our three hour effort barely brightened the space. Really, the library needed a day of deep cleaning, a few days of painting, and new shelves with new books. To be fair, the space does look notably better. It’s far more usable and hopefully will become a place of learning. The door was open while we were working and children frequently ran inside to tell us how pretty the paint was.

But, my inspiration to write about Mandela Day came not from my actual volunteering. Instead, it came from the absolute charade of volunteering I saw from a few members of parliament.

Imagine: Ten people from SACTWU have been making slow, but steady progress painting and cleaning the library. We’re discussing how our efforts will not be enough and we should consider returning another day to do more work. There is paint on our clothes, bags, and skin.

Then: Four or five members of parliament swagger into the room all in matching Mandela Day t-shirts. They have a small posse following them with iPhones and one professional camera. They grab brushes and “paint” a wall. They pose and ask their photographers if their angles are alright.

I asked my boss, Nazmia Leiti, if she could look at her watch a minute after they walked in. By the time they walked out, only two minutes had passed. Their three minute stay was enough time for me to glare at one particular MP who was adjusting his sunglasses and paint brush as if posing for couture magazine. He noticed my glares and in what it appeared to be a moment of self preservation offered to take photos of me. I declined.

I wish I had filmed the whole affair. I looked online to see if their photos had surfaced and fortunately could not find them. I’ll update with their photos if found.

Prior to volunteering, I had been told that Mandela Day was really a corporate construct to gain good publicity. But, I thought at the very least even if the intention to give back was not genuine that volunteers would at least pretend to have good intentions. I suppose I’m just struck by the absurdness of not giving the 67 minutes the day is based around. Rather than any volunteering, the school would have benefited much more by some donations for their library.