Tuesday, 9 October 2012

A Brief Reflection on Contemporary African Leadership

By Takura Zhangazha*

Reading Nelson Mandela's autobiography in late 1997, I remember being struck by one particular paragraph  that somewhat shocked me out of my messianic deification of the African icon. In it, he writes as if to make sure that the readers of his life story would understand that his decision to join the liberation struggle of South Africa was one based on pragmatism and necessity. The specific paragraph reads, 'I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, and a thousand unremembered moments provoked in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people.' He also makes sure to insist, 'there was no particular day on which I said, 'Henceforth I will pursue the liberation of my people,instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise'.

It was a bit of a dampener because my then eager mind had been expecting a messianic narrative, even a 'Saul on the road to Damascus' moment for Mandela to make that 'final' decision to 'join' the struggle. Well it turns out he did not have that singular moment, a development that seems to be true for most African liberation movement leaders. Their leadership and participation in liberation struggles seems to have been driven by the sum total of their complete and repressive encounter with the inhumane apparatus that was the settler/colonial state at both personal and societal levels. Add to this the fact that the repression also had a Manichean character to it, then it is easier to fathom how and why not only the leaders but also thousands of Africans chose to join various liberation struggles across the continent. It was the 'age of resistance' by necessity and by the dictate of the common desire for equality and human dignity. 

It is however the aftermath of these same said struggles and the decisions made by our liberators that is now problematic. Contemporary leaders of not only Zimbabwe but also in most parts of Africa no longer understand the primary challenges of leadership and why they choose or are chosen to lead. This is because most of our leaders, even if they admire the courage needed to have undertaken the liberation struggle, have tended to be lost on why they are now in leadership proper. They do not see the thousand slights that the Mandela's and others experienced because they think that sort of leadership was only suited to era of anti-colonial movements and therefore assume the same leadership rules don't apply. This is probably a direct result of the fact that they believe the era of 'revolutionary Africa' is definitively over and as a direct result thereof, tend to apply themselves less in leadership roles and styles.

They no longer take time out to understand the societies and countries they lead, opting instead for prescriptions from international experts or transnational corporations who will promise temporary investments both into a specific corner of the countries they lead as well as an investment in their personal welfare. In other words, African leadership is now increasingly for sale. There are fewer and fewer leaders that find themselves pursuing the liberation of their people for lack of an option and as a fundamental necessity. Not that we expect them to be Mandelas or Cabrals but it would help if they demonstrated the requisite consciousness of the historic task of democratically pursuing the continuing socio-economic liberation of African peoples. And this beyond their politics of the belly.

At the risk of being accused of being nostalgic or even naive about former leaders, the key issue is that leaders like Mandela make it clear that they knew what they were doing in their time, and seriously so. Their vision was apparent but not easy even though analyzing their challenges was much more straightforward; they had to dismantle the apartheid/settler state and establish sovereign and democratic ones. After that, they had to pass on the leadership baton not necessarily to leaders that would mimic them, but those that would understand the revolutionary and founding vision of the people's struggles for emancipation. And it is in this regard that our contemporary leaders have failed dismally (inclusive of those that participated in  liberation struggles and still hold on to power). A number have gotten into or close to power on phenomenally popular waves, only to betray majorities in favour of mimicry of the West or East and in the process undermining historical opportunities for progressive and people centered democratic change.

As it is, we might need to have a contemporary African leadership that has a singular epiphany, one that remembers who we are and where we intend to go without falling prey to the easy and nefarious path of the politics of aggrandizement or unashamed neo-colonialism ( be it from the East or West). And like Mandela, in his heyday, this singular epiphany will be on the basis that, while there is no particular day in which they will say  'Henceforth I will pursue the liberation of my people,' they will simply find themselves doing so because they cannot do otherwise.

*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)