Democracy, fanaticism, and the cult of personality: USA the new Africa

Growing up in Zimbabwe, I heard common refrains in support of the leader of the country and the incumbent party. It was easy to get carried away with these slogans and the catchy phrases. And even now, we sing the songs and laugh at how they resonate no matter our opinions. Later I learned that this was the cult of personality and propaganda as we studied Stalin’s rule in Russia and then the rise of Fascism in Italy. Then I turned 18 and I was legally obliged to vote.

My History teacher encouraged us to read manifestos from the political parties. He did not want us to vote out of ignorance or fanaticism. That’s when I realized that whatever support I had for whatever political party was baseless and uninformed. I had not read anything on them but already had an idea of who to back. Because of the untrustworthy Zimbabwean media, I did not actually know the reality of the political parties in my country. I realized then that had I voted I would have voted based solely on arbitrary reasons such as the fact that one was the opposition or that I liked the leader of this or that party and not what they would do for Zimbabwe. I realized then that many people in my country did not vote based on the realities of the future of our country but based on fanaticism and worship of a party or a leader.

Democracy like this would not last. Leaders could rip a country apart but if they were worshiped people would vote for them to remain in office. (true story) Some would refuse to step down from office but still have loyal supporters because it is not a government of the people for the people but a government by the people for the leader. It hit me that maybe democracy wasn’t the best fit for Zimbabwe now and neither is it for the greater Africa. I imagined democracy – as exemplified by my understanding of the USA – as the triumph of reason and the scrutiny of policy. We were made to believe by those who clamored for democracy that people in the USA read political policies that were proposed and questioned a politician at debates and voted based on the best fit in relation to actual capability at the execution of presidential duties.

Zimbabwean democracy is a mess. People are supporting the opposition because they simply want change. However, they are simply changing oppressors because instead of looking at true action and policies, they still only support the person at the top. The factions created in the MDC just before the 2008 elections MDC-T and MDC-M and so on were born because people did not look at policies, capability, or best fit. People simply said “who is leading”, I am behind him or “No, I don’t like him.” Granted it is human to decide like this yet this is the fate of a whole nation decided willy-nilly. Morgan Tsvangirayi holds on to his leadership spot like the rival he wants to topple. And yet people see him as the hope. And the question is if he holds on to power like this, what really will be different? It’s like marrying someone who has cheated many times before in the hopes that somehow that marriage will be different. It is like jumping out of an airplane with a parachute that has failed to deploy a few times and hope that this won’t be one of those times when you can find a more reliable parachute.

In short: people in Zimbabwe vote out of fanaticism and true, frustration. They vote simply because someone is in the opposition, or that someone is in the ruling party. They vote because they like a catchy refrain or the colors of a party. They vote out of ignorance as I would have done had I been given a chance. A democracy where the wrong questions are asked is a failed democracy. Who is leading? is not the right question.

The right question is “Who is running, and what do they have to offer?”

The USA is better in that they answer both parts of the question. Yes, the USA answers both parts of the question: “Who is running and what do they have to offer.” However, the last 2 maybe 3 elections, have been quite unique. I will start with good old Barrie.

I was driving with my girlfriend and we were talking about Obama’s last speech. I have always found his speeches great but great in the cliché way of great. I told her, “Obama never did it for me.” She gasped and said, “But you are black.” And I replied, “And that’s the problem.” People think because you are black you should support a black candidate. Obama received a huge support of the black community in America. In part, it was so that history could be made as the first mixed race president would be elected or rather the first black president. I am sure though that voting because of someone’s race is not encouraged especially in a democracy. Same applies to those who did not vote for Obama because he is mixed race. They asked the question who is running and ended there.

In the last election, women were encouraged to support Hillary Clinton simply because she is a woman and electing her would break the glass ceiling. Some women were shamed for not supporting Hillary because women are supposed to stick together. I remember reading a bitter article about women who voted for Trump after the way he had spoken about women. Some suggest Hillary lost simply because she is a woman. If she had won would it have been also because she is simply a woman? Again, both for and against based on gender are not encouraged especially in a democracy.

I used to believe that people in the USA voted because of policies and some do, but now I know they have a little more advanced system where they ask. “Who is running…then they ask what do they have to offer and if the offer is brown skin then yes, or if the offer is a vagina then double yes and if the offer is brown skin and a vagina- I think that would be a 21trillion yes. But isn’t that more about who is leading and not about what they must offer as leaders. Because brown skin and a vagina are not at all things that leadership seminars and military service or years in political office can give you. If leaders are forged in experience and chosen for character, then brown skin and vaginas do not at all factor in. They seem as arbitrary as voting for common refrains and slogans. These things have nothing to do with actual leadership.

And so America slowly becomes the new Africa. Yes, maybe rich people are somehow controlling the political landscape and America is no longer a democracy but an oligarchy. However, people who are voting not because of the person’s leadership capabilities but because of gender or race are also failing the very same system that they blame the wealthy for failing. And so, if even our great example America is failing at its own democracy who can show us the example? Is there another system of government we can look to that that will yield smart decisions and good leadership in Africa?

It is quite clear Africa is simply not ready for democracy. No, not yet. Our cultures are not designed to work well with this system. One big ideal of democracy is freedom of speech. In some “democratic” nations such as the USA, one can insult a political leader with no known repercussions from the government. However, in Africa and Zimbabwe people can be arrested or victimized for insulting certain politicians. But then we all know as Africans that culturally you register grievances to your elders in a respectful manner. Such that as we move toward democracy in some way we erode the values that makes us Vanhu/Abuntu which creates conflict. The values of unhu/ubuntu where we treat our parents and elders with utmost reverence are challenged by the freedom to insult them in public. This is but one aspect of this system that is incompatible. I know there are numerous other aspects of democracy that are incongruous with a bunch of African cultures. No wonder many countries tend to revert to dictatorships which are simple chiefdoms. And chiefdoms still exist in Zimbabwe where the leadership of a community is inherited and the leaders are respected in a monarchical way. Africa needs to find a way of adapting. Otherwise, this cycle of a liberator turned dictator will continue. Look at Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, DRC, then and now. The saviors come in waving democracy but end up changing the constitution to run for office multiple times and become chiefs.

It pains me to know that we have improved as human beings technologically. But here we are with a very limited palate of government systems to choose from. I want to challenge Africans to come up with a system of government never tried before. To innovate in this sphere of human life called government. And to stop pretending democracies that are cults of personalities. And above all, to stop thinking that democracy is the answer. We have a round hole, and democracy is a square filler. We can chisel out the corners but we can’t take it wholesale.

Allen Matsika

Born and raised in the small town in the land of milk and honey in south central Africa, I moved to the USA to study philosophy. The hope was to understand where humanity had lost its way. I took a historical perspective on the trajectory of western thought and was especially struck by Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. The memorable description of human nature in that book contributed greatly to my understanding of the human condition.

Life is a misery to be endured until we die. Even those with terminal illnesses find times of respite and laugh and enjoy their lives. So too is mortality a terminal illness. We will all die, I for one am glad this is so. But before that day I will define myself, I will not go without giving everything I have got, and I will love with all my heart.

I am proud to be an Afropolitan; a world citizen of African descend. I am called Allen and I love writing, eating, and singing in the shower!

Allen Matsika

Born and raised in the small town in the land of milk and honey in south central Africa, I moved to the USA to study philosophy. The hope was to understand where humanity had lost its way. I took a historical perspective on the trajectory of western thought and was especially struck by Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. The memorable description of human nature in that book contributed greatly to my understanding of the human condition. Life is a misery to be endured until we die. Even those with terminal illnesses find times of respite and laugh and enjoy their lives. So too is mortality a terminal illness. We will all die, I for one am glad this is so. But before that day I will define myself, I will not go without giving everything I have got, and I will love with all my heart. I am proud to be an Afropolitan; a world citizen of African descend. I am called Allen and I love writing, eating, and singing in the shower!

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