“Zimbabwe will not be transformed by a 1970s activist leader, but a true visionary with the gumption and grit to remove his imported suit, roll up his shirt, do practical work and build something from the ground up.”
While activists shape events, visionaries shape and change the world as they have such a long term view that they see beyond the horizon. Due to the poverty of vision, death of strategic insights and poor appreciation of global realpolitik, Zimbabwe is stuck in a retrogressive time warp, with a President acting out the inapplicable activist politics of the 1970s. For this reason, Zimbabwe will be stuck in its present rut for some years.
The Black Man’s Burden
A few weeks back, US based Zimbabwean professor Ken Mufuka, wrote about an issue I have wanted to write about for some time. It’s a theme I have noted in some of my writings to my Japanese audience. In his article, Mufuka Sensei wrote about the black man’s burden. He cited Michelle Obama’s speeches over the past few months as follows:
“During the last several weeks, she has used her lofty position, at graduation ceremonies, to lash out at the white society which has oppressed her people for so long.”
Michelle Obama San, according to Mufuka Sensei, speaks to a wider issue, an issue of being seen as a stalwart, no matter how non-strategic that can be. He writes;
“How many times and how long shall the children of Abraham complain about past injustices? In doing so, we miss an opportunity to help our people, to make friendships with Pharaoh’s children who rule the universe. But I suppose that is not the issue. The issue, as we say in Zimbabwe, is to show that one is a stalwart Africanist.”
A key issue I want to address that comes out of Mufuka Sensei’s contribution is: Barack Obama is a visionary genius and Michelle Obama, in spite of being a Harvard Alumnus is a genius activist. Therein lies the difference. Barack Obama knows very well that he cannot achieve his long term plans by behaving like an activist attacking the people who have powerful leverage that he needs to achieve his goals. Michelle Obama San can afford to behave like an activist because she is not the President. And therein lies the difference between African countries’ and their more economically successful Asian counterparts in how they relate with the West.Advertisement
Realpolitik is a German invention, which means pragmatic politics as governed by realistic considerations, not the romantic notions of it. Ludwig von Rochau defined it as the analysis of:
“Powers that shape, maintain and alter the state is the basis of all political insight and leads to the understanding that the law of power governs the world of states just as the law of gravity governs the physical world.”
The modern day meaning of realpolitik would replace the word state above with ‘world’.
A visionary wannabe stuck in 1970s activism
Zimbabwe’s President loves to strut it out each time he gets an international stage to portray himself as a swashbuckling paragon of African renaissance and defender of the black man. In that mode, he carries the air of a man engaging in daring and romantic adventures with bravado or flamboyance. He is always clad in western-tailored designer suits, and looking every part a caricature carrying all the vestiges of the imperialists he despises (his equal number in Gambia, ‘Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr.’ Yahya Abdul-Aziz Awal Jemus Junkung Jammeh Naasiru Deen Babili Mansa discarded western attire).
In fact, when he is standing at the podium at the UN, shouting Blair this and Bush that, you would almost think there is everything African and Zimbabwean about him. Yet there is none except his Zimbabwean name, African accent with strains of 1970s British accent imitation, and his brown skin. Everything else about him is foreign. The suit he is wearing, the spectacles on his face, the tie on his neck, the watch on his wrist, the cufflinks on his shirt, the Botox under his skin, the shoes and socks on his feet, the bullet proof vest he wears in some cases and the medication he gets abroad from time to time.
But then, naku neko wa nezumi o toranu. This Japanese proverb literally means that “a loud cat doesn’t catch mice’.
The trouble with activist politicians is that beyond the small outcomes of their activism, they have very little achievement. They get stuck in the same cause that they fought for months that run into years which run into decades and they rarely transform. Robert Mugabe is still stuck in this mode and will die that way, and with him the hope of the people of Zimbabwe to build a country of high dreams and vision.
The unfortunate part is that activists that rise up on the back of a certain cause, no matter how narrow, put the wider people’s cause into jeopardy because, in the pursuit of a narrow cause, such activists wow the people as they rise to the occasion with their activism, and the people entrust them with their future forgetting that the activist knows very little beyond the cause that brought them into the position of power. And when they entrench their tentacles of power, they oppress their people in so many ways and distract them from demanding different causes other than what they became known for in the first place. It is for that reason that it’s never wise to keep the same leader that took you through a war and entrust him with a transformational developmental agenda.
The British were smarter and saw through this problem. This is why even though Winston Churchill was viewed as the greatest war time leader as Prime Minister during World War Two from 1940, Churchill was rejected by the British voters in 1945. They saw through Churchill’s war time activism and soaring oratory, but nonetheless denied him a second bite at the cherry because they knew that the man that led Britain in war was not the man to lead the nation in peace time.
I have written in the past about systems thinking. It is pertinent in the social setting because our societies work the same way as systems. To use an analogy that everybody else understands, a car is a system. When you decide where you want it to go, you define its vision. When you drive it, the car system will function in a manner that takes you from one point to another. If I decide to drive now from Tokyo to Yokohama, whether I am driving an automatic or manual transmission vehicle, the gears of the car have to change from lower to higher ones. I cannot drive the car all the way to Yokohama in gear one. It’s inefficient, problematic and will slow me down. This is the challenge Zimbabwe faces today with the 1970s activist rudderless leadership of Robert Mugabe which has left its citizens on a bridge to nowhere.
Activist charlatans purporting to be leaders
I noted earlier that you may differ with Barack Obama on many issues, but as a leader he is a genius. This is why he was elected by voters that a few years before would have vowed never to elect a non-white President into the American White House. He won where several other non-white leaders like Jesse Jackson before him had failed. Scholars who shall study his Presidency will find that his success was centered on not just staying above the fray, but focusing on bigger goals, and not behaving like an activist. The moment you lead like an activist you cease to be the right material for national leadership.
More importantly, Obama understands that to leverage around power and navigating the status core, you can’t just be a talker, you act and manoeuvre through action. This is where Robert Mugabe gets it wrong, to the detriment of Zimbabwe’s citizenry. It does not help, or bring bread onto your table to keep harping on about slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialists as if speaking about them will stop them. Zimbabwe was not the only country colonized. Much of the African continent was colonized too. So were many countries in the Middle East and Asia. India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Singapore (Mugabe’s latest favourite hideaway), Malaysia and many other economic giants in Asia today used to be colonies. In fact, China was partially colonized by the British, and that is why Hong Kong remained a British colony until 1997 long after Zimbabwe was independent. The difference these countries have with Zimbabwe is in how they charted a successful path based on grand visions, foresight, discipline and hard work.
Influence is not built by rhetoric or shouting the loudest
By far, one of the most profound African-American men in the United States, and in my view, the most strategic, who understood that you don’t influence and change the world by activist noises was Ralph Bunche. He is probably largely unstudied by many pan-Africanist charlatans, like Robert Mugabe. Bunche, a Harvard graduate and academic who taught at universities including Howard University, was an intellectual of tremendous depth, who was a sounding board for many individuals and institutions including US presidents and civil rights activists like Andrew Young and Martin Luther King. He also worked for many international organisations such as the ILO and the UN.
Bunche was the first non-white (more precisely African-American) person to receive the Nobel Peace prize in 1950, largely for his role in mediating between Arabs and Israelis who were on each other’s throats. Bunche took over and succeeded in resolving the conflict, after Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat had been assassinated by Zionist extremists.
More importantly, Bunche is credited with crafting the documents that led to the formation of the United Nations. His brilliance was critical in getting the foundational ideas of the UN in place, and he later rose to become its undersecretary general. While Bunche supported civil rights leaders like Luther King, Abernathy, Jackson and Andrew Young, he counseled them against activism that could get them killed, for you can’t achieve much if you are dead.
All mouth and no trousers
Why did I take time to reflect on Ralph Bunche? It’s often said that there are three kinds of people. Some make things happen, some watch things happen, whereas others wonder what is happening. I see a fourth group of people who just talk about things that happen. People in this group are all talk and zero action. This group of people never achieves much, and they blame everyone else except them for their ineptitude. They love to mouth off and sound intelligent with soaring rhetoric, but achieve zilch. They love to hear the sound of their own voices. They love applause and revel in their own talk. They are full of hot air. They are all foam and no beer.
However, the world is rarely shaped by these people. This group of people is where you find Robert Mugabe. He takes to the podium, and you see the vintage 1970s activist. He will talk about imperialism, reforming the UN, and so on and so forth. But he is all mouth and no trousers. That is exactly why Zimbabwe is where it is, and it shall not be transformed by a 1970s activist leader, but by a true visionary with the gumption and grit to remove his imported suit, roll up his shirt, do practical work and build something from the ground up.
Global influence is not built by soaring rhetoric or shouting the loudest in activist fashion. So for example, given every chance, Robert Mugabe will go to the UN, and give a speech about reforming the UN, and nothing happens after his speech. I suspect after the speech, he will chat with his aides and say something like, “did you hear my speech, I told them”. On the other hand, Japan also wants to be in the Security Council, but the Japanese are acutely aware that they will not get in through speeches and will instead work on international lobbying and a lot of behind the scenes maneuvers to get things done.
Working yourself up to earn respect
In matters critical to the development and advancement of the lives of the people of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe is as clueless and as incompetent as they come. In today’s global matrix, international respect does not arise from speeches and activism. There is a lesson Africans in general and Zimbabweans in particular can learn from the Chinese. Decades ago, the Chinese reeked of poverty and scarcity and they did not have as much international standing as they now have. But they worked hard to transform their economy, creating a cadre of successful citizens that has earned the Chinese global respect. The Chinese did not have to take every international podium as a chance to give roaring speeches and demonstrate mindless activism, because they are acutely conscious of the reality that today’s realpolitik demands that your voice is equal to your political and economic achievements. And these achievements actually come from not just thinking, but doing and working hard.
Deng Xiaoping, credited with leading the modern day Chinese transformation was a quiet figure. He was a Ralph Bunche who worked behind the scenes to get things done. Deng eschewed conspicuous leadership positions in the Communist party and government. He NEVER held office as the head of state or head of government or General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. He was just acknowledged as the visionary and paramount leader. This is much unlike Robert Mugabe who gets an over-inflated ego when he is referred to as President and Head of State and Government, and Commander in Chief of the Defence Forces. The lesson is titles matter not, achievements count more.
Earlier I mentioned the Barack Obama and Michelle Obama contrast. So why has Obama been largely successful? The answer is that he fully understands realpolitik, and knows that he cannot be an activist, but a leader who must remain focused on a robust agenda and ignore the distractions around him. That’s what Zimbabwe needs now rather than later. Activist leaders whose thinking remains in the 1970s will keep Zimbabwe behind, nailed back in the past while other countries like Kenya and Rwanda march full steam ahead. Emmerson Mnangagwa told a Chinese TV network that Zimbabwe is 20 years behind. I think that’s an understatement. It is more than 40 years behind!
Ken Yamamoto is a research fellow on Africa at an institute in Tokyo. He researches and travels frequently in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Zimbabwe. You can contact Ken on firstname.lastname@example.org.