The good slave and African leaders

> Mkhosana Mathobela Bingweni

NOTHING terrifies an oppressor more than that oppressed individual who begins to think, and to think forcefully with some independence. Oppression fears independent thought.

Sometime in 1825, in the small town of Baltimore within Maryland in America, the bored wife of a prominent slave owner found new entertainment in teaching a boy slave how to read and write. The way a sponge does water; the slave boy absorbed the craft and soon toyed with literacy and numeracy. By the time Hugh Auld, the slave owner, realised what his beautiful but bored Sophia had done, the slave boy was already dribbling not only with literacy and numeracy alone, but also philosophy and oratory.

Even as bored Sophia stopped the lessons, the slave boy started buying his own books with crumbs of bread and continued polishing his ideas and ironing his oratory skills. So dangerous in thought and speech was this slave boy that quietly, he convinced the master’s wife, a beneficiary of slavery, that slavery was evil.

Frederick Douglass was never the same slave, the regular servant. He became a philosopher slave, a slave who demolished slavery with thought and speech. He punched slave drivers and eventually escaped. In the North to which he escaped and began addressing audiences advocating for the abolition of slavery, he became a suspect. Well meaning white abolitionists refused that a former slave and a black person could express himself with such profundity. In a criminal sort of way, Douglass had even overturned the Christian gospel, using it to challenge slavery and to charge white America with sin and crimes against humanity and God.

Soon enough, white abolitionists claimed him as theirs. They tried to co-opt him, to usurp his political project and portray him as the product not of his own intelligence and courage, but of their generosity.

An oppressed person who thinks is either co-opted or usurped or killed.

In fear of being assimilated into the French imperial culture and its sensibility, Leopold Sedar Senghor and Aime Cesaire fashioned Negritude as a liberatory school of thought and political paradigm. Senghor was met with contempt even amongst fellow Africans and Negritude the philosophy of liberation was denigrated. Aime Cesaire was also accused of the heinous crime of “reverse racism” without a sense of paradox that “reverse racism” was a justified reaction to white racism, the original crime.

If not physically killed like Muammar Gaddaffi, or toppled like Kwame Nkrumah, African leaders who think and act independently are killed by naming and by description.

Forcefully, Gilbert Khadiagala has insisted that African leaders who think are an endangered species. Speaking from his position as a leading African American philosopher, Lewis R. Gordon has exclaimed that no crime in the world is worse that “to be caught black, and be caught thinking.”

Saint and Statesman

The Nelson Mandela that was jailed in 1962 was a typical Frederick Douglass. He was a courageous dribbler in thought and speech, and was willing to lead a military onslaught against the apartheid regime. Such Africans were not needed in public circulation; he had to be kept away for decades. From that fire eating youth, long years of prison and bombardment with selected books carefully screened by his jailers, Mandela was softened into a turn-the-other-cheek philosopher of unconditional forgiveness of oppressors and an apostle of reconciliation.

When Mandela walked out of prison in 1990 he was a black leader and a white hero. His philosophy and political agenda was good for South African whites, he had been softened, his new jobs was now to calm blacks and lead them away from a direct confrontation with South African white supremacy.

The revolutionary had become a saint and a statesman.

Up to today African leaders of the liberation movement are told, not in so many words, to be like Nelson Mandela – become saints and good statesman.

Even long before he died, Mandela as a revolutionary had been killed by co-optation and domestication, hid thought and activism had long been turned around for the service of Empire.

If not in danger of being physically murdered, all thinking African leaders are in danger of being co-opted and usurped by Empire, being turned around to lead their people away from liberation to further oppression and exploitation.

Philosopher of Liberation

After Mandela, Thabo Mbeki was to be a different Frederick Douglass. Coming from exile, having imbibed West European economics at Sussex University in England in the right, and having absorbed East European communist ideology and military training in Moscow in the far left, Mbeki was to be a different political creature.

After many years of roaming and sojourning in African countries, Mbeki learnt a lot from the many different African economic and political experiments.

During the secret talks that brought an end to apartheid, Mbeki – the pipe smoking and whiskey sipping diplomat – impressed the Afrikaner and British interlocutors as a true black Englishman, cultured and refined.

There was satisfaction that he had been co-opted.

As the Vice President to Nelson Mandela, Mbeki started talking about radical transformation beyond the feel good reconciliation of Mandela. As a real Frederick Douglass, Mbeki had polished linguistic embroidery, delivering fiery speeches and waking up the dead with the ideas of an African Renaissance. Mbeki was a true escaped Frederick Douglass.

Using Shakespeare and even some communist philosophers, tools of the West and of the East, mixing them with African idioms and proverbs, he chipped away at Empire.

At first he was called an “imperial president” who did everything himself.

Next he was named a brooding and scheming Machiavellian, a technician of power.

William Mervin Gumede, a journalist, wrote in 2005 of Mbeki who battled for the soul of the ANC, a political gladiator. Mbeki was also called, like Aime Cesaire and Senghor, a race essentialist who was dangerous to reconciliation and peace in South Africa.

Xolela Mangcu called Mbeki an intellectual pretender, who deliberately toyed and experimented with ideas for nothing but a political image.

When, on December 20, 2007, Thabo Mbeki was voted out from the presidency of the ANC by his own political party and comrades; he had long been murdered by naming and descriptions that came from a white owned South African press.

While a typical Nelson Mandela is easily elevated to a saint, a typical Thabo Mbeki is crucified.

Empire does not suffer kindly that Frederick Douglass, the slave who wants to liberate other slaves, who wants to demolish slavery.

African Thought Criminals

African leaders, especially those from the tradition of the liberation movements walk on eggs in the world. It is either one is co-opted or murdered symbolically, if not physically. All the same, the future of Africa in the present world system that now has a new captain in Donald Trump requires brave and thinking African leaders. To thoughtfully lead an African country in the present world is to be a thought criminal and a suspect.

Leading Africa is a political hard hat adventure full of temptations and perils.

It is either one sells his or her people out by impressing Empire or one confronts Empire to defend one’s people.

While juggling between one’s people and Empire, navigating contesting interests, it is never easy for an African leader to maintain his or her popularity. Soon enough, a leader’s own people, the population are the ones that come up to challenge the leader, to demand freedom from the leader and independence from his or her rule.

In such cases it is easy for the African leader to turn around and bludgeon his people for being blind and foolish.

A disaster that must be avoided.

Like Plato said in ancient Athens, philosophers must be leaders or leaders must be philosophers or else society will perish. African liberation leaders need to put on their thinking caps and be real thought criminals who can navigate the traps of Empire to lead their people to liberation in this impossible world.

A Donald Trump led World Order will demand even more calculation and reflection on the part of African leaders who must love and lead their people and still keep Empire at bay. To lead Africa is to die before death.

November 2016
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