Bhekinkosi Moyo
Bhekinkosi Moyo

‘Power sharing’ and not ‘shared responsibility’ is the problem with African politics

The dirty face of politics in Africa is the abnormal fixation on sharing rather than distributing responsibilities in managing the resources and the sovereignty of states. This seems to be the main underlying problem in the current Zimbabwe impasse, for instance. The same is still true of Kenya, and other hot spots in the continent. Even the current crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo is an ambition by Laurent Nkunda to be included in the sharing of political power; which in itself is a direct line to state and national resources. One can go on and enumerate all cases in the continent that have gone either to full-blown war or to some civil strife as a result of the politics of exclusion in sharing what my friend calls the ‘national pie’.
I am in my mid thirties and I can barely refer to wars that have not been driven by callous greed on the part of politicians, save for a few liberation struggles. But even then, some of those liberation heroes have blurred the line between the struggle for freedom from colonialism and the struggle to capture state power for their own interests. This is an embarrassment and a complete negation of our human values.
Even in progressive democracies like South Africa, the politics of exclusion drove the formation of a new political party. The current brouhaha about the ‘Shikota Movement ‘or what has come to be known as the Congress of the People in South Africa is nothing but an outcry by those who feel excluded from political power in the reconfigured African National Congress. We are still to be convinced that the new formation will be representative of the nation’s interest. My view currently is that this is a mechanism by the excluded are getting back into mainstream politics to have a piece of what they left. The Freedom Charter is the last thing in their minds. The arguments presented that the ANC was purging ‘Mbekites’ and the contention that the ANC has diverted from its values are void of substance. To begin with, any new administration brings its own personnel. This is not unique to South Africa: it is a global phenomenon. Just like a new broom, the new ANC is expected to sweep effectively, and so it was given that a few people would be swept away. The second argument is even more interesting given that the very people who are accusing the ANC of deviating from its values were senior leaders themselves for more than a decade. It is unconvincing that they have suddenly had a ‘Damascus experience’.
Be that as it may, the question is what is wrong with the nature and character of politics in Africa? I am of the view that the way we have framed our political concepts and processes contributes to the current malaise around negotiated political settlements in Zimbabwe, Kenya and elsewhere, where political flames have been burning consistently. Of-course there are other fundamental contributing factors. But in these cases; recent and distant, the very notion of sharing power has implied a scramble to divide or distribute whether equally or otherwise the resources of the country, including political power. As a matter of fact, political power has been used as a mechanism to assume economic and at times cultural and social power. Very often do we see economic power used to gain political power? And if this were to happen, the aim would be to control both; and not to govern democratically and develop the citizenry.
To illustrate the consequences of this ‘sharing of power’ disposition, the struggle within the mediation process in Zimbabwe, for example, is not just for ministries of home affairs and finance as we have been made to believe. It is a scramble to loot national resources. This is a messed up mentality given the state of the country. One would have thought the political elites would focus rather on wealth creation and the general reconstruction of the country as opposed to ‘looting’ the very little that is left of that country. Unfortunately, this is not how politicians think: theirs is the further depletion of the remaining resources. The constant bickering over the allocation of ministerial positions is indicative of this ‘distorted’ mentality.
It is amazing how politicians cannot take a leaf from other contexts. The just ended elections in the U.S should teach us many lessons. Not only is Barack Obama younger, he is also not as experienced as most African leaders. Yet he shines more than all of them in his democratic credentials and developmental aspirations. By contrast, the older John McCain, who is perhaps their age, accepted defeat in the most graceful ways. Did McCain take up arms? No. Were there dead bodies as a result of Obama’s resounding victory? No. Did McCain request a government of national unity? No. Instead he congratulated Obama and urged his constituency to support the new president elect. Will we live to witness such ‘politics of acceptance’ in Africa in the face of defeat? Maybe my grandchildren will?
Ironically, most presidents in Africa, including those involved in contestation of positions, like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe sent congratulatory messages to Obama. Isn’t this paradoxical?
Why can’t our leaders see that they are now an embarrassment to their citizens, Africa and the world? Why can’t we have smooth transitions in our political systems? One would be forgiven to think there were no elections in the U.S. President Bush has moved swiftly to introduce Obama to the White House in order to facilitate a smooth transition. There is a sense of continuity and respect for the institution of presidency. But if Obama had won an election in Africa, he would have immediately booted Bush out of office, got inaugurated promptly and not taken the opportunity to learn and be briefed about key issues. The trend in our continent is that as soon as one is elected fairly or unfairly, there is a rush to be inaugurated. Nowadays, president’ elects are sworn just hours after the announcements of results. We might even argue that some are inaugurated even before the election is held. There is no period for ‘induction or reflection’. Our people are in a hurry to get to the highest office in the land. This is due to the fact that a political position is seen as a ticket to national resources and not a responsibility to protect citizens’ rights and deliver quality services to them.
At one moment in the Zimbabwe crisis, the argument was that there is an impasse because one group wanted a transfer of power as opposed to sharing. It never occurred to the warring parties that people voted them not to share power but to rebuild the country. The focus should therefore be on shared responsibilities in reconstructing the country and not on who owns or controls what. The intransigence that has characterized both parties (ZANU PF and MDC) is shocking and beyond any normal description. Given the current deteriorated systems in Zimbabwe, one would have thought the parties would at least have some humility and restore dignity to Zimbabwe. Just last week, we understand that one of the South African Airlines could not land in Harare due to lack of lights at the airport. We also understand that the main hospital closed its doors due to lack of medicine, water, electricity and other basic needs. It is no secret that Harare is on the verge of a very disastrous cholera outbreak. These are just few of the anomalies in Zimbabwe and yet when given an opportunity to solve the crisis, as it happened over the last weekend, the political heads bask in political bickering.
Unless we change our language and mentality from sharing power to sharing responsibilities, Africa will drown further in political malaise.

  • Canada

    What makes you think people whose aspirations and ideals are not met by the current system should do?

    Stay for the sake of not wanting to be labelled so-losers, thats crap.

    Many of us grew up in the culture of the “inzile” ANC and UDF to be precise. Democracy and the individual liberty was our central theme.

    South Africa will never be like all these other countries you mentioned, largely because many of us learned that the best arbiters of freedom are the people themselves not politicians.

    I must admit the temptation ot be dictatorial for whatever political expediency will always be there, as in the nature of any body politic. Whether in the form of Mbeki persecuting his enemies or Zuma having his revenge.

    What pleases us the voters unlike in Zimbabwe or Kenya as you referred, we will decide whom to punish and whom to believe.

    I can never understand a country like Zimbabwe, where the best of its sons and daughters flee their mother land and congregate in foreign countries;throwing barbecues, sipping champagne and living large when their country is burning.

    Didnt they learn anything from the Jews? All that you get out of their mouth is how South Africa should help them.

    Rubbish, what you see in Cope or Shikota is an expression by people that we are not Zimbabwe and will never be Zimbabwe.

    Even Cosatu is very vigilant when coming to turning South Africa into another African failure.

    What is different about South Africa as opposed to other African countries is that liberation victories were scored succesfully from the Urban (i.e townships) as opposed to the rural area.

    Zanu has more commonality with IFP than ANC

  • Lyndall Beddy

    Morgan would be brain dead to agree a deal leaving Mugabe in charge of the police. Morgan WON. Mugabe LOST. Can’t you tell the difference? You are mouthing platitudes. Not once did you say the obvious – Mugabe must go!

    And the ANC is the first “liberation” movement to split. Good for them. Maybe SA will be the first Southern African country with a real opposition – which is the basis of democracy.

  • Lyndall Beddy

    Before Polokwane there was no talk of counter revolutionary judges; who would still have been under threat had it not been for Judge Nicholson’s very clever judgement.

    Before Polokwane we did not hear about “political solutions” for criminal charges. We only heard “innocent until proved guilty” with the implication that Zuma would prove his innocence.

    Before Polokwane we did not hear threats of people being killed for Zuma.

    If we had heard all this before Polokwane – maybe Zuma would not have won.

    So The Congress of the People IS correct to say that before Polokwane the constitution was not under threat.

  • J du Preez

    Your title: ‘Power sharing’ and not ‘shared responsibility’ is the problem with African politics.

    I would think it is just the other way round: “shared responsibility and accountability” and not “power sharing” is the problem with African politics.

    You chose to contrast the African situation with the recent elections in the United States. I write as a South African but I share with most Americans certain roots in European historical legacies. These are the Judeo-Christian ethos, the Reformation and the development of democratic institutions in the United Kingdom and on the European continent since the Middle Ages. These legacies emphasise individual responsibility, personal accountability and separation between the executive, legislative and judicial powers of the state.

    The concept of “shared responsibility” as espoused in the “ubuntu” ethos, is a historical legacy of Africa. Moreover, in the latter half of the twentieth century, many African career politicians opted for the worst of European historical legacies, namely the collectivism of Marx and Lenin.

    To understand why Mr McCain, President Bush and President-elect Obama acted as they did, those who inherited the “ubuntu” and collectivist legacies need to understand that the American (and European) historical legacies are different from that of their African counterparts.

    Shared or collective responsibility (the African code for centralised power) means that in the end, everyone – and thus no one – among the powerful is accountable.

  • steve

    Excellent post! Can you send it to the ANC please.

  • Na’ima

    Bhekinkosi, you have hit the nail on the head. African “leaders” do not have a sense of service and responsibility to the people that have put them in power. Thank you for putting so eloquently what many cannot or will not admit about ourselves.

  • Dianne

    Wow. There is so much said about Zimbabwe AND the current ANC infighting, yet this gets to the very heart of the problem. And it turns out its the same problem! Great insight Bhekinkosi!

  • khathu

    Good read.. paragraphs please ??

  • HD

    South Africa didn’t experience an urban/rural revolution – it was a negotiated settlement.

    If we experienced a revolution we would have seen the revolutionaries dominate business, government and all other spheres of society – which it not the case.

    South Africa society is to a large extend a plural society (political sense) or has multiple centers of power – influential business, independent media, strong civil society, independent judiciary… Ironically these things are often under attack by elements in the ANC/or accused of being counter revolutionary – indicating that the revolution in that sense is not complete.

    However, in many African countries a plural society is not present and all power/influence is exercised through state machinery and often the office of the president. Many former liberation movements started consolidating their grip over the state lever/resources through one party systems / other repressive strategies not too long into liberation.

    In many cases they simply extended and took over the colonial systems they inherited and made no effort to build a more plural society and support things like media, civil society and independent civil service/state structures. Or took very ideological policy position (with arguably good intentions) but without pursuing it through democractic means – marginalising people that disagree and discouraging debate.

    Of course limited economic resources, outside influence and colonial interest all played a role too. But, it was ultimately the responsibility of the new governments to manage, aid, relations with business, economic resources…

    It resulted in societies where: It is more difficult to make it in business if you don’t carry the right card, independent media is scarse/demonised, seperation of powers is shaky, patronage prevails and corruption rife.

    Therefore, in many ways it will remain being about sharing the spoils of office/state because it either controls everything else or because their is nothing else worth controlling.

    The dominance of ZANU-PF and its patronage network/one party state program led to a broad coalition rebelling against this program – consisting out of all the elements you normally find in a plural society. Let hope proper transformation takes place in that country and not just sharing or changing of power…

  • Baboon

    until the military, police, and law are impartial and independent ‘power’ will always be an issue. The MDC has for instance compromised a great deal – Mugabe has no legitmacy as a democratic leader and it has been africa’s mistake not to say so – his existance as ‘head of state’ is all down to compromise – but let’s face it, with the military and police and law courts under Mugabe/ZANU orders, if they compromise one more micron, they’ve left power in the hands of a very evil, ruthless bunch of mass-murderers who care as much for the people’s welfare as the Taleban do. To make it responsible ‘not for me’ government, first the ‘for me and my cronies’ government must go. At the moment ZANU is using the hostage people of Zimbabwe as human shields, assuming that the human decency of their foes exceeds their own (not hard. They have none.)

  • Lyndall Beddy


    Don’t fall for the ANC brainwashing about the IFP. There were third forces on BOTH sides. What do you think Operation Vula was up to? (the existance of which Mandela denied, even though Mac Marhajah had him informed all the time).

  • sandra

    Got to agree paragraphs please, my head aches. I dont like collective responsiblity, I want to see heads roll, collective family responsiblity is all very well, but sorry not with Government or business. The potential for abuse is all too real. There is no room for improvement where people do not take personal responsiblity for their actions and choices.

  • MKT

    Great piece Bheki – wish a few “leaders” could see this.

    On the Zim impasse – yes, the people on the ground want the leaders to build the country, but having power enables u to rebuild. How d oyou reconcile the difference in ideologies and ideas on how to do the rebuilding ?

    No 2 bulls in same kraal methinks.

  • Mpho Mkhalipi

    What SADC needs is someone of the former Nigerian Pres. Obasanjo, when he realise that Charles Taylor was a nuisance to the continent he invited hime to stay in his country and later on handed him to the Hague Tribunal.
    Today Liberian’s are leaving peacefully after free and fair elections under Pres.Johnson.

  • Tobias James

    “Power sharing’ and not ‘shared responsibility’ is the problem with African politics.”

    If one man one vote was respected then their would never be a case for power sharing.