In a recent lecture held by my university, Jesse Jackson told an audience of mostly student activists not to disrespect those that came before them. He told us to uphold their legacy and continue their work. The phrase “Those that came before us” is a phrase that underlies a contentious issue in a post-colonial Africa, specifically what we are meant to do with our legacies of resistance and the people who have curated these legacies. With the rise of intersectionality and the internet’s “cancel culture” it seems that we have become more aware of how fallible our heroes are.
Now we are left with questions about how this fallibility affects us as a society and moreover affects how we see their achievements and their legacy.
One legacy in particularly that has consistently been brought into question is that of Nelson Mandela. In a post ‘94 South Africa we find ourselves questioning his rainbow nation and actions after apartheid. It is no longer enough that he tried to reconcile with whiteness. The flaws of post-apartheid transformation, and how it is at odds with liberation, are piercing through the veil of Madibaism. There is now a critique that comes to the forefront that annihilates the very base of what Madiba stood for; a non-racial south Africa.
However, in this discourse there is almost an attack not only on his choices but on his character. It is no longer sufficient just to say “here is a man who did what he found morally right and best for his people at the time” but rather “here is a man who sold out to white supremacy, to white monopoly capital.” With this hyperawareness of Mandela’s faults, his immense personal sacrifice is buried under knowing comments that he just wasn’t the same when he came out of jail. It is the age-old Malcolm vs Martin debate.
Recently, it seems that young Africans are more willing to criticise those who led us into this post-colonial stage. Looking at the material conditions of most of Africa, we are starting to ask why and how a lot more, however there is an immense push back against this journey we have embarked on. It comes across as rude to discuss how these great leaders have failed us. How do we ask questions like “how did Jomo Kenyatta amass this enormous fortune while ruling over a newly independent country that did not have too much in the way of resources and infrastructure” without obliterating the legacy of the man he is thought to be.
African culture tends to be paternalistic and it is this same paternalism that has made it almost taboo to critique those that came before us. It would seem absurd to criticise Sankara because he did so much for Burkina Faso, in fact it hasn’t been the same since he was deposed. However, the reality is that for all his achievements he was not, at least in the western sense, democratic.
Continentally there is an obsession with the “strong man” leader and due to his propaganda and our own fetishization of respect we refuse to criticise him. After all, when someone has centred themselves as the base of our nation, any critique that we afford him is an impediment on nation building. As a continent we often necessitate this cult of personality that denies our humanity.
I watched a Ted talk on how we aren’t producing leaders in Africa like we used to. “Where are the Kwame Nkrumah’s of our generation?” the speaker vehemently asked. As if our inability to produce someone like Nkrumah means that there is no hope for the continent. Whilst I am not denying the necessity of good leadership, it seems more practical to me to start an honest conversation about the “strong man” and how his existence in history has become a key reason why we have failed to develop democratic practices and structures.
Our inability to critique the strong man has led to us reproducing same dichotomy, with leaders like Magufuli and Kagame we seem the place this enormous burden of fixing a country on one man, and when he falls short of this achievement, even dismally we don’t reconcile his legacy- as long as he is better than the one who comes after him. Our inability to reconcile the legacies of even the most fallible leaders sets a horrible precedent for future leaders, the bar is undeniably on the ground.
When you have a leader that the whole country is supposedly behind, the retraction of human rights becomes something that we can all get behind. Even Robert Mugabe was once an omnipotent leader. The decline from “champion of the people” to very literally the stuff of nightmares seems to happen overnight, and we all become victims of a sacrifice most of us are even too young to remember. Yet freedom of speech, freedom to dissent is never provided. After all, you don’t need to dissent when your president has the support of all the people in the country, when he is king-like.
We need to reconcile the reality of our countries with the legacies of the people who led us to freedom, this includes recognising their failures and fallibility and ending the cult of personality.
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