A Continent of Cowards

For a country that still has many wounds to heal, the death of activism has led to an unfinished revolution

Has the statute of limitations on writing about all things Madiba expired? I suspect so. OK then, as a disgruntled American liberal in Africa, I figure writing about the limitations of Obama has no statute of limitations. So I’ll use him as my starting point to talk about something that’s been on my mind since December. Here’s the thing: for a few minutes I felt so proud of “my” President as he delivered his stirring speech at the Mandela memorial. The message! The gravitas! The man is such a world class smooth-talker; he made me fall in love with him all over again.

But — and it’s a big but — it did not take long for his speech to feel like just that: talk. Long before “selfie-gate”, I started to question. Why is Obama strongest behind a pulpit, wielding words instead of actions? Why, for all the highfalutin ideals and soaring oratory, has he been so seriously disappointing in reshaping the American agenda? Do we need the list? Guatanamo. Banks. Drones. Surveillance Environment. He’s caved or cowered too many times. He’s got a credibility issue. Or is it an integrity issue?

That was the magic of Madiba – the precious little disconnect between word and deed, rhetoric and reality. You might have disagreed with his tactics but you didn’t doubt his integrity. He went to court – hell, he went to prison — for what he believed in. Can you think of a single leader alive today who would suffer for their beliefs? No, wait, can you think of a single leader who would suffer a dip in approval ratings for their beliefs? And that, I think, explains the international outpouring around Mandela’s death. We aren’t just sad; we’re scared. Is the brave statesman now extinct? This cowardice crisis is not limited to the Obamas, Zumas, Goodlucks, and Camerons — a reality I was reminded of in December, just before the memorial actually. A colleague was griping about a “visioning” meeting she’d attended among leading education NGOs in Cape Town, discussing how to tackle the education crisis in 2014. It was meant to be all breakthrough, blue-sky thinking – developing Vision 2014 – you get the idea.

Now, in case you are not aware, South Africa’s education system is an intolerable disaster, a depressing mix of incompetence, graft, and mismanagement — the stuff of toyi-toyiers’ dreams. So, then, what was the “stuff” of Vision 2014? Apparently, the workshop attendees decided their best response to one of the country’s biggest social crises was “improved collaboration”: more emails, monthly meetings, better sharing of “lessons learned”. Maybe even a Facebook page.
If NGOs can’t do the innovative stuff, and won’t do the difficult stuff, where does that leave them
Textbooks aren’t being delivered; school principles are molesting children; pass rates are abysmal; and graduates can’t do multiplication. And the response among leading local NGOs: better coordination! Amandla! Let’s try that again, with feeling: More networking! Nope, doesn’t work. Where’s the passion? The ambition? Where’s any hope of transformation? When I came to South Africa in 1993 NGOs formed the backbone of the anti- apartheid movement — righteous, visionary activists who took daily risks in pursuit of their mission. And now they seem content to try to facilitate South Africa out of its current hole.

Talk about credibility issues. If NGOs can’t do the innovative stuff, and won’t do the difficult stuff, where does that leave them? Staring down their own extinction, I’m afraid.

I know the feeling. I came to South Africa in 93 fancying myself a white girl Ninja, but soon settled into a comfy routine of running workshops, writing manuals and generally satisfying myself that I was “doing good” on behalf of assorted beleaguered Africans. Let’s just say I ran a lot of visioning meetings. There I sat in Zimbabwe in the late 90s, the head of an HIV/AIDs project, faux praying through countless tributes to people who’d died of “headaches”, nodding in response to pious preachers who notoriously screwed the faithful in their spare time. I never once spoke up or out — I was far too professional an administrator for that. I ran an HIV/AIDS project, but I wasn’t at all a Leader. I had an integrity issue. And as I looked around, it struck me that the NGO sector did as well.

So I quit my job and licked my wounds, and tried to decide if I could be in the business of social change if I wasn’t prepared to be brave. The white girl Ninja was extinct, and I had no idea what it might take to replace her.

How bad do things have to get before we act up? How much outrage does it take to spur activism? Nobody wants to wax lyrical for South Africa’s bad old days —but at least they inspired greatness in their response. Is that the problem? Do we need capital-letter-history-making-evil – Apartheid. Colonialism. Fascism. — for us to stick our fingers in the air? Or even stick our necks out? In this, Obama’s world, can we really “network” our way out of injustice and inequality? Or does someone actually have to be brave enough to denounce it. To hold people to account. Publicly. Does someone have to do that thing I and so many other so-called Leaders have been too afraid to do?

I refuse to believe that Mandela’s death marked the end of the brave leader. On the contrary, for people like me it’s a profound push to continue to uncover the activist inside. I hope to be proud of President Obama in 2014. But my Vision should probably start with me. Because if I can’t act boldly and with integrity, I doubt my Leaders will either.

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