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Obama, Zuma & Mugabe

I followed the US presidential election about as closely as anyone living outside the United States could. There were many highs and lows along the way, but in the end, team Obama prevailed.

When it was all over, commentators the world over gushed with praise for the progress America had made. And rightly so. I am convinced that President Obama will turn out to be as good a leader as he was a presidential candidate. I am also convinced that he will improve the lot of millions of Americans.

But neither America, nor the rest of the world, will see the kind of radical “change” that many believe he will usher. The reason is simply this: as important as the office of the president is, US political structure does not give any one person free reign over the country. A serious problem with African politics is the cult of personality that exists. Though the Obama global phenomenon demonstrates that the whole world is partial to big personalities, I think our politics are extreme.

Take South Africa for example. How many people believe that, when president, Nelson Mandela was solely responsible for South Africa’s relatively smooth transition into a representative democracy? How many people thought his exit from active politics would spell the demise of the country’s race relations? And how many are waiting for the massacre that is “bound to happen” the moment that Madiba steps off the public scene, or worse, dies?

The same is true of the Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma saga. Rather than debating the direction and ideology the ANC should pursue, there was a debate on which personality should be at the head of the party. It was as though the ANC were a property and there was a spat over its ownership. To this day, there are plenty of discussions about what sort of leader Jacob Zuma would make as opposed to the direction the country should take. Surely that debate, as well as a debate on the part’s guiding ideology should be at the fore? Think about it.

George W Bush is in danger of going down as one of America’s worst presidents in a very long time. As bad a leader as he may have been, the United States survived eight years of his leadership. Granted, the world is in recession and the US faces massive challenges, but the country has survived worse. Provided South Africa has structures in place to keep the president from overreaching his authority, the country will survive just about any leader.

Better still, if the political parties are staffed with competent people who have an intelligent programme for government and the ability to keep their leader from going too far, the people can have the leader of their choice and the country will survive. It might even do well. So why all the fuss about Zuma? How many public debates and column inches are dedicated each week to questions of political and economic philosophy apart from personalities? Why aren’t there more questions asked about the role of the trade unions moving forward, or the structure of the education and health systems? Note, questions and constructive debates, not lazy criticism. What about South Africa’s foreign affairs policy going forward and the country’s role on the continent? Aren’t these more important than our tendency to become fixated on personalities?

Which brings me to Zimbabwe. So long as the crisis in the country is framed as the result of a madman and his cronies, the next administration will go down the very same path. Zimbabwe is where she is today because the country spent too much time hating or worshipping individuals rather than dealing with real challenges.

At the root of the problem was an acceptance of a system of governance that gave one man absolute power. We then went on to accept all manner of things. We accepted the obvious lie that there had been racial reconciliation and that allowed race to be used to divide the country. We accepted the notion that some tribes were better or worse than others, which again was exploited for political ends. We accepted that black empowerment meant the enrichment of a few individuals. We also accepted the lie that the people who really mattered were the urbanites, even though the majority lived in rural areas. All the while, we praised, then blamed, Robert Mugabe.

Zimbabwe is where she is today largely as a result of a fixation with individuals when there should have been a focus on nation building. The political impasse that exists in the country today is because of an insistence on viewing Mugabe and Tsvangirai as the whole of their parties, rather than just representatives.

The greatest tragedy of post-colonial Africa is the fact the we have not stopped to think about who we are, or want to be. Yet, in the words of John Maynard Keynes,“… the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, little else rules the world. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas … soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good and evil.”