Mandela or Zuma: Just More of the Same

It was interesting to me as I was reading one of the South African weeklies last week; to read the story about Nelson Mandela and the two women who it is claimed are his as yet unacknowledged children. According to the information given, the Nelson Mandela Foundation has already verified that one of the women, who has just recently passed away, was indeed Mandela’s daughter and the other woman’s claim is still being investigated. This whole story reminded me of the furore over President Jacob Zuma fathering a child out of wedlock, which broke a while back and I found myself comparing our beloved Saint Nelson with our incumbent president and seeing no real difference. I know this will shock a lot of people since there seems to be this unspoken rule that Saint Nelson should be treated as some sort of deity whilst the likes of Zuma and his contemporaries are nothing but trouble and should be treated with utmost disdain and suspicion as they symbolize everything that is wrong with South Africa whilst Saint Nelson epitomizes all that we aspire to be as a nation. The truth of the matter is that both men fathered children, with different women out of wedlock (you could argue that Mandela’s case is different since he was younger when he fathered these children, but the effect is still the same). Both stories broke out in the media and it has been interesting for me to observe the varying responses of the media and society to these stories. Of course President Zuma, being the evil, irresponsible guy (at least that’s how the media often portrays him) was vilified whilst there has been a hush about the Mandela story and the plight of the two women who are supposedly his long lost children. The whole saga got me thinking about the concept of “heroes” and the role they play in the make-up of society and in the promotion and advancement of the aspirations and ideals of “the people.” I got to thinking about this because the Mandela story made me realise that as saintly as many people think Mandela is, he is no different from the average South African male who has sired children out of wedlock and is notorious for his womanizing ways. In other words our leaders and our “heroes” are nothing but a reflection of what we already are as a people; they reflect back to us what we truly are. I then began to ask myself some key questions: why do we place so much trust in “heroic” individuals to deliver us and take us forward? Why are we always looking towards some “great figure” to take us towards our Promised Land? It then dawned on me that part of the problem with Africa is that we have placed too much confidence in these “heroes” and figureheads and to a large extent this has kept us from taking charge of our own lives and our own destinies and has left us completely disempowered as a result. Africa is full of great “heroes” who have been acclaimed as the “saviours” of their own nations, but is short of great citizens who take charge of their own lives and do not look to someone external to help them live out their dreams and aspirations. If Africa is going to become a fully functional, prosperous continent, this “hero-worship” has to be forsaken and instead we need to focus on building societies made up of empowered citizens who have the capacity within themselves to make their dreams come true. This reliance or dependence on “great heroes” of course then translates into an over-dependence on political parties and politicians to bring about the necessary changes that will help citizens to attain their goals and fulfil their aspirations. Of course this is not a uniquely African phenomenon. The euphoric election of Barack Obama to the position of American president had clear elements of this “hero-worship” as Obama was treated like some kind of messianic figure who would radically transform Washington, clean-up government and ensure a better deal for the average American. This was a hugely unfair and unrealistic expectation which no man could ever have lived up to (and Obama hasn’t). The Chinese had Mao Tse-Tung and Deng Xiaoping, the Cubans had “El Jefe Maximo” Fidel Castro, the Turks had Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the list goes on and on for different parts of the world. It seems as if there is an innate human desire for creating heroes and messiahs who will “take us out of our plight” but as Albert Camus put it, “every revolutionary ends up either by becoming an oppressor or a heretic” or in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Every hero becomes a bore at last.” Africa is full of tales of great “heroes” who became heretics, oppressors and complete bores once they had tasted the fruits of power and the benefits of controlling access to resources and opportunities. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to progress in Africa has been this over-reliance on these “heroes” and “father-figures” to lead us to that Promised Land of prosperity and progress that we all yearn for and if we are going to see a change in Africa’s fortunes in the twenty first century, this is one of the tendencies that we are going to have to let go off. According to the author James Davison Hunter in his book, To Change the World, “most of us are inclined to what has been called the Great Men (Great Person) view of history. It is a Hegelian idea of leadership and history, popularized by the nineteenth-century Scottish historian, Thomas Carlyle. In his own words, the history of the world is nothing but the biography of great men, for universal history, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the history of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great Ones; the modellers, patterners and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realisation and embodiment, of thoughts that dwelt in the Great men sent into the world.” Whilst it could be argued that there are elements of truth in the above statement, the problem with that particular view is that it disempowers society, it leaves the quest for progress and development in the hands of a few people, it leaves the majority on the periphery. It breeds populations and citizens who are over-dependent on politicians and the state for meeting of their immediate needs and desires. It leads to inaction and lack of initiative and dynamism amongst the populace. It is my conviction that Africa needs great, ordinary citizens much more than it needs Great Men. The Greek philosopher Plato put it well when he said that, “this city (state) is what it is because our citizens are what they are.” Africa’s failings so far are more a failing of citizenship than a failing of leadership. It is the average, ordinary citizen’s over-reliance on some mythical, heroic political figures that has allowed elites to plunder resources and live opulently whilst the common man on the streets is battling to make ends meet. In order to ensure progress and change in Africa we need to focus on producing great citizens instead of focussing on producing great leaders and great figureheads, because ultimately the leadership will only be a reflection of the society from whence it hails. To paraphrase the words of the American poet Walt Whitman,  “produce great citizens, the rest will follow.” Mandela or Zuma, Tsvangirai or Mugabe, Kaunda or Chiluba, Mobutu or Kabila, Bush or Obama, Thatcher or Blair: it is all the same. Frail human beings upon whom too much trust has been placed, “political messiahs” who are bound to fail us as they are in many ways no different to us. It is time we took back power from our “heroes” and we vested it in ourselves so we can do something about our current plight instead of waiting for someone, some party, some organisation to make things better for us. It is time we moved from a focus on “people of power” to a genuine focus on “the power of the people” as highlighted by Luthando Tofu.
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Mugabe Ratshikuni

introverted, shy, nothing to write home about

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