South Africa and the Burning Boy: crises and the quest for good governance

Taruvinga Magwiroto

Watching the agonising and soul-wrenching spectacle of a young man being burnt alive in South Africa, to the atavistic howls of a patently blood thirsty crowd got me seriously thinking. Not about the horrors that young man must have felt as the life was cruelly squeezed out of his burning lungs. Not the literal “up in flames” of dreams of the good life that must surely have driven him to do whatever it is that he did. I wasn’t thinking either about the vigilante who was adding fuel to the fire of his own depravity, he as much a victim as the burning boy.

No, I wasn’t really thinking about them. They are just the visible enactment of our failures as Africa. That sorry spectacle was just the tip of an iceberg, an iceberg unknown and unknowable, but fashionably characterised as “poor governance”.

And therein begin the questions.

We are told that Africa’s problem is a problem of poor governance. We are “told” because, well, Africans are good listeners. Good parrots. Good echo chambers. We have been psyched to be believers. Wired over centuries of systematic battery and subjugation to believe in our own weaknesses. We are told, but is it true?

It is absolutely true that one of Africa’s problems is poor governance. Corruption, impunity, and shocking short-sightedness.

At the moment we are groping in the waters, trying to trace the contours of an iceberg. We try to explain the reality in terms of the known, the things we comprehend. We simply do not possess the apparatus for transcending our reality, because we are too preoccupied with existential matters to cultivate the very resource that could liberate ourselves: our thoughts.

I believe our long term inferiority as Africa comes from the fact that we do not possess the time, the means nor inclination to invest in the long term. We remain forever moored at the foot of the intellectual food chain: errand boys, trumpet bleaters, echo chambers and ball-boys of other people’s intellectual ideas.

Take this perennial charge of poor governance.

Of course there is poor governance. Why? Because the system is wired that way! It is illogical to expect “good” governance from a system that promotes the worst to leadership positions. I will give an illustration.

During Mugabe’s long reign in Zimbabwe, one of the consistent patterns of his rule was that “good, conscientious” people did not stay long in his cabinet. Either he fired them or they resigned. I am talking about Zimbabwe because I am more familiar with its history. But the same could be said about Uganda or Malawi or any other African country. We have a system of leadership that selects the cruelest, meanest, most cunning among us, and yet we have the naivety to expect good governance from such a system? It’s an anachronism, illogical.

But here is why Africa’s future is in big trouble. We are so engaged in existential struggles, we have no time, nor the energy to disengage and look for alternate ways to transcend our situation. We don’t have the luxury to sharpen the tools that must surely dream up the ideas that will emancipate us. Where we are fortunate enough to do so, we are provided with tools which limit us to work within the logic of the system, just another hammer chipping away at the tip of the iceberg.

I can imagine that at the theatre of the macabre behind the burning boy are shadowy bosses organising the lynch parties. Supplying the drugs to dull the senses. The matches and the fuel. And probably watching at a safe distance with a camera in hand, chortling savagely at the unfolding drama. Shadowy characters spewing hatred and fuelling the hate and focussing the energy of equally tragic individuals trapped in the vicious logic of the system. It’s a life, it has to be lived. But it’s certainly not a good life, and the mob that cheered the suffering of the burning boy are as much victims as him. They are all logs going to the same fire, only different times.

Now coming back to the issue of good governance. I will categorically say this: the nature of our (and the global) political system is such that it is not possible in Africa to achieve good governance, stability and prosperity. Why? I will give an illustration.

The politicians that I know who were closest to philosophers were Nyerere of Tanzania, and Mugabe of Zimbabwe. When I say philosopher I mean a person with coherent thought, who also had conviction and reasonable justification for his actions.

Mugabe loved his people, and wanted to genuinely empower them. That land reform was probably the most empowering actions ever done by any politician in Africa. But Mugabe was also a politician, subject to the logic of the global power system.

When extreme economic sanctions were brought to bear on Zimbabwe, the inevitable happened: people turned their back on Mugabe. But because he was a politician, (and politicians love power above everything else), he was forced to respond to the logic of the system: deploying the coercive forces to balance the equation and maintain power. The more he used force to maintain power the tighter the other side squeezed. You could imagine it as a savage warrior dance deep in the African night, two armies circling each other across a burning stakes, daring each other on who could dumb more bodies into the fire.

Flashback. The year is 2008, the place Mt Darwin, Zimbabwe. The economy is so bad, all the office talk is about Mugabe failing. One of his die-hard supporters told me something that I scoffed at the time, but have thought about since. “Haasi kutadza…ari kutadziswa” (He is not failing; he is being made to fail).

This brings me to a crucial point: the conditions for good governance. Is good governance a function of “goodness” of the leader or “good/conducive” environment? We have established that the political system does not produce “good people”, and that “good” people can never last in African politics. This brings us to an important juncture: good governance occur when the conditions are conducive for it.

What are the conditions for good governance? By far and away the most important is the absence of a threat to political power. If we take as true that politicians like power above everything else, we can deduce that they can only be “good governors” when their power is not threatened. Threaten their power, out come the guns. This brings us to a startling conclusion: it is possible to create conditions where good governance is logically impossible to achieve.

Politicians in Zimbabwe do not agree on what factors caused those sanctions to be slapped on Mugabe. But whatever it is, now poor governance is being used to justify the sanctions. Sanctions in turn create the conditions for poor governance. Which in turn invite more sanctions, more protests, more coercion, more sanctions, more suffering, more protests…there is no breathing space, no let up. It’s a stranglehold, a death grip.

As long as Africa’s economic and political system is vulnerable to external influences, we will remain entangled in the vicious cycle, chipping away at the tip of the iceberg. Meanwhile as we continue to watch in anger as our young people burn at the stakes, it is incumbent on thought leaders not to parrot the logic of the system, but to dream up of ways transcending the problems, and prevent the inferno from engulfing the whole continent.

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