Sunday, June 18, 2022, brought to life a delightful edition of my series, The Toyin Falola Interviews, where we had former South African President, Dr. Thabo Mbeki, as a guest. If anyone had thought of my piece before the interview as overly lauding, that interview, with all its intensity, was a resounding and conclusive proof of the piece’s integrity.
Having President Mbeki on the show was a privilege, as he markedly represents a generation of South African nationals and politicians gradually becoming history while also belonging to the generation after it. He belongs to the generation that saw anti-apartheid campaigns and activism and also the generation of the embryonic wave of post-apartheid governance in the country. And he is still here with us today. Listening to Mbeki, one characteristic of the politics and activism of the anti-apartheid era that anyone would appreciate — especially as it is lacking in today’s generation of young African politicians — is a political ideology. The African National Congress that Mbeki grew up to know was guided by its political ideologies, which formed the foundation of the party, its campaigns and activism, its recruitment processes, its membership, and its structure. The likes of young Thabo grew up learning the ideologies of the party and thus forming a strong sense of identity for themselves.
The party leadership and other intellectual parents like Mbeki’s knew that the battle being fought was not just against apartheid as a political infrastructure but also as a social system. In a South Africa where it was easy for the young and adults to lose their identity and sense of self, Mbeki grew up as a proud and vocal African, which is many thanks to the upbringing he was exposed to during his formative and youthful years.
Gratitude must be given to Mbeki’s parents, who provided him with an environment and upbringing that exposed him to the best and most-refining forms of engagement any young and growing African could crave. According to the President, he grew up in an environment where he had ample opportunity to engage with issues, ideas, and people. If not anything else, such an opportunity during his formative years must have largely contributed to the shaping of the vocal and unrelenting political and intellectual bulwark that President Mbeki is.
It cannot be said that such importance is placed on ideological values in today’s South Africa. Then, it was seemingly a do-or-die affair. The activists had to either groom children who had a firm and grounded sense of who they were as Africans or risked losing the battle to the socio-political and erosive apartheid system. Today, things have moved from a level of survival to the need to thrive, and can we confidently say that the political scene in South Africa thrives as a firmly ideological one?
The dearth of ideological politics is not a South African political epidemic. It does exist in other African countries, including the self-proclaimed giant of Africa, Nigeria. The level of severity, however, differs according to country. South Africa: having experienced ideological politics for a protracted period does not have as severe a case as Nigeria’s. That is to say that the present political lords in South Africa still purport their political engagements and activities under the guise of a mutually shared political ideology, especially since the African National Congress is still the country’s ruling party. The same cannot be said of Nigeria, where political activities are devoid of any iota or traces of political ideologies. Politicians defect across the country’s two major political parties as they wish. In Nigeria, your strategic alignment with the ruling party or predicted-to-rule party is all that matters, or whether or not you are chosen as your parry’s flag bearer for the political position you are eyeing.
Although the realities of Mbeki’s upbringing and those of the current generation of South Africans are starkly different, there are underlying issues that show both have similar issues to address. President Mbeki’s generation was at the forefront of the fight to end the apartheid system. They were likewise the vanguards of a new and development-oriented democracy for the South African people. They were the first to do it without a manual or “a how-to guide” to follow. Embryonic post-apartheid South Africa needed more than physical development. The building of the South African state-required emotional and psychological inputs. The people needed to know themselves and their worth and recognize it.
President Mbeki recounted the processes that got his generation involved in politics. There was no official handover of power from his father’s generation to his own. The power exchanged hands because the then youth — Thabo Mbeki’s generation — recognized the need to actively participate in and contribute to political activities and engagements in their country. Mbeki has been an active member of the African National Congress since his teens. And the same can be said for some other notable anti-apartheid political activists of his generation. He recalled how through his active participation in the party’s engagements, party leaders identified him and purposely delegated some leadership roles to him — first, to test his knowledge of the ideological foundations of the party’s political engagements and activism, and second, to test how solid Mbeki was as a member and how prepared he was for leadership positions. This was how he found himself in the right circles, eventually emerging as the African National Congress National President and ultimately the 2nd President of post-apartheid South Africa.
South Africa’s youth of the present day are beset with a similar scenario. Instead of an apartheid government, the youth are wary of gerontocracy. The youth crave meaningful seats at the table of power in the country. However, circumstances make gerontocracy seems like a ceaseless form of government in the country. When will the youth be allowed to take over power in the country? When will power be handed over to the youth?
Just as the young Mbeki and his energized young fellows did not wait for an official handover of power from the older generation to their generation before taking on initiatives, participating in political discourses and undergoing political engagements, the youth of today should not wait for the old leaders to resign or hand over power to them or relinquish their seats of power. There is practically no one, once possessing power, who would be glad to let it go freely. Today’s youth must learn the art of political engagement. Furthermore, they must understand that political influence and the occupying of influential and important political offices come from active engagement and participation in politics. It is the youth who show themselves as capable of managing power that would eventually inherit it. The long-nosedive level of intellectual and mission-driven political engagement cannot be separated from the circumstances surrounding the upbringing of the two generations of South Africans.
Awarding a leadership scorecard to heads of state and government across African countries would reveal one thing: several political leaders across the continent cannot even measure up to the bare minimum of what is expected of them. The situation is terrible, and the carefree attitude of these leaders towards their ineptitude is more than terrible!
African political leaders must know they are duty-bound to be accountable to and transparent with the people they govern. Leadership in a democratic state should not be anything short of representation. The people voted for their leaders, and in turn, these leaders are required to communicate with the people in real-time on issues affecting the state and the approaches the government is taking toward solving them. Understandably, some promises may meet with delay during execution. However, not considering the electorate as important enough to be given updates on the promises and projects being executed is the problem that several African political leaders have. Leaders must maintain regular contact with the people and communicate honestly with the electorate. This way, the people will be in a better position to gauge their expectations vis-à-vis the achievements and provisions made by the leaders.
The South African youth of today must know that power and leadership are not served on a free gold plate. There will be no official handover of power from President Mbeki’s generation to today’s youth. And no one would actively seek to prepare the young for takeover if they are not themselves prepared to take over power. The South African youth must learn how to participate, engage with issues and people, form alliances, belong, network, learn, groom themselves in the process, and strategically position themselves for leadership positions. Thankfully, political participation in South Africa — although not always encouraging — is not as financially consuming as in Nigeria. The lamentation must give way to activism.