Shortly after the Second World War, the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats immortalised his work through, amongst other writings, his poem ‘Second Coming’, wherein he opined:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
Throughout human civilisation, people have been motivated by either beliefs, or fear of failure, or death. In all their pursuits, there is a value system that guides as a compass into tomorrow, either to avoid past failures and bad experiences, or improve on what already exists.
We as human beings thus invented political systems as contracts to help us navigate our very complex relationships in our families, our friendships, our organisations, our societies and now our countries or states. We as human beings are the only species that admits that we are not perfect, yet want to be. That is why we remain in the perpetual state of being.
Animals and plants are what they are, but we are still becoming, constantly trying to get to be better than yesterday. Yeats reminds us of our imperfectness and the importance of having a centre to which we always return to rediscover, re-define, re-affirm, and redirect ourselves in the context of our human condition of uncertainty, vulnerability and decay.
The one vital area of our human life where the centre is needed is in government systems. In post-colonial Afrika we are constantly deprived of that centre, which beckons all of us to return to the ideal relationships that we either once had before we were brutalised by slavery and colonisation, or which we desired to create with our struggles for freedom.
Before these human calamities of slavery and colonisation befell us, the Afrikan mind had a cultural value system that informed the way in which power was acquired, utilised and even lost. In the main it was by associational agreements of the elders, who based their determination on long-held values and deeply held customs. These values and customs were monitored by a hierarchy of do’s and don’ts.
The centre to hold people together is very important for any situation to be sustained. For instance, during the independence struggle, the centre was around the sacrifice and commitment to be part of the noble goal of freedom and the human act of self-rule.
Many of our heroes and heroines were motivated by this spirit, such that they would sacrifice their youth, their education and commit to the struggle for what we enjoy today. Their personal safety and gain were immaterial, as the commitment to the goal of contributing to create a Namibia that is better for all was too powerful and empowering.
Come political independence, the Afrikan is left without a centre, without a common value system to oversee the manner in which power is acquired, used and abused. We have seen in a few clear examples that when the centre was lost, everything was possible, including the end of all kinds of freedoms.
The centre can also be created by leadership, or a leader, who sees a better future and enunciates such a desired ‘future common good state’ for others to follow and aspire to. Political leaders, such as Moses in the Old Testament, Abraham Lincoln in America, Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, Murtalla Muhammed in Nigeria and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, stand the test of history, because they created a value system as centres of being better servants of their people.
Moses spoke of the Promised Land, Lincoln went and fought against his own system and managed to issue the emancipation proclamation to end slavery in America. Kaunda set the tone for One Zambia One Nation and in spite of his shortcomings, managed to constitute a society with the emotional wherewithal to commit their country’s resources to our struggle in South Africa and Namibia. Nyerere gave us the dictum of how to work with foreign systems, but with a human face. Muhammed preached the value of a corrupt-free Nigeria/Afrika and paid with his life for it. Mandela restored the dignity and honour, not only upon South African blacks, but upon the black race the world over. Mandela caused the human spirit to triumph.
The importance of these legendary mortal beings is that they remain the reference points of what could and ought to be better in all of us. When people remember them, tears swell up in the eyes because the world which they painted through words and sometimes small acts are so fulfilling to the rest of us.
Their words and deeds remain so omnipresent that people who never met them miss them, and cause people even to say that had these persons been alive, life would be better. In other words these individuals were driven by higher and noble ideals than what they could get out of the situations themselves. Their ideals become the centres of what motivates and inspires others to strive towards something bigger and better: a better world wherein we can all hear one another.
Borrowing from Yeats, the tower of Afrikan literature, Chinua Achebe wrote a novel, Things Fall Apart, in 1958 wherein he depicted a story about African society, where the culture was extinguished by missionaries who introduced a different lifestyle.
Although Achebe was in favour of the defunct Afrikan culture of the pre-western society, he also lamented the weaknesses within and self-destructiveness of Afrikan native structures of power relationships. Later, in 1984, Achebe authored another seminal book, The Trouble with Nigeria, wherein he issued an unreserved indictment of the Nigerian leadership as the main source of that nation’s woes where everything else is plentiful.
Most Afrikan countries slide into the troubles they have today due to the absence of a centre to hold things together. Leaders are without a centre. They are only about themselves and their Amen-sayers. When the original centre of our national being – namely to end colonial rule – ended, we were left with nothing solid to keep us moving forward together.
Leaders have become self-centred and self-congratulatory, and excessively intolerant to different viewpoints. In the post-Cold-War world, greed takes over and we all want to become super-rich yesterday! In the absence of something bigger to go after, we chase after wealth and earthly acquisitions, which can never become the centre as these things are the source of inequality and thus the fuel of conflict where nothing else exists to measure ourselves against.
In the end we end up with leaders with no centring and who cannot lead because they themselves do not know what leadership is all about. John Maxwell is right when he teaches that the foundation of successful leadership is the leader’s knowledge and understanding why he or she is there and what purpose he or she is to fulfill for other people.
The leader’s passion must come from a particular centre and this centre is what fuels the leader’s passion and gives the energy to continue to reach higher and higher. Knowing one’s purpose also centres one to be the best one can be, instead of imitating others who did/do their best from their own centres.
We in Afrika are more about yesterday than the future. Our glories celebrate the past, not the future. We continue to over-exaggerate the past and our roles in it, while we underestimate today and jeopardise the future with our so-called past successes.
In Afrika yesterday’s success is the reason for tomorrow’s failure or disaster. As much as we must cherish the days gone by, we shall do better if those days are mere lessons of what we must not repeat. This is so because if our best days are yesterday, we are in trouble. Is this not where we are in Namibia, where we celebrate the past at the expense of the possibilities of tomorrow?
Is this not where our challenges with the youth are as we continue to preach to them how well we did in the struggle, even though and even when we know we are not telling the truth. How do we expect the youth to sthe struggle against white domination when they face their own challenges today? A false centre is more dangerous than no centre at all. Our experiences of yesterday, important though they might be, are not good enough until they are evaluated correctly.
Where is our centre as a nation? It would appear as though we must continue to redefine our understanding of what a nation is. With a good definition of what a nation is we move towards a comprehension of who we are, how we are constituted and what we have and do not have to get where we want to go.
The stories of the liberation struggle, most of them grossly embellished, are of limited value. We cannot even tell these stories in an inspirational manner to our youth today, as we alienate them when we tell lies about what we did and where we were and erase others out of the stories. The trouble is that others know better, or will find out, and once we are caught lying, they lose even more than we lost during the oppressive days. The centre disappears and the youth is left rudderless.
We need to find our centre. Once we find it, we name it and respect it in different ways. Then we coalesce around it with a new openness and a new passion. This centre cannot be individuals, and it matters not how powerful they are or what they say ‘when they died’ for our country.
Democracy cannot grow and flourish without democrats. The future cannot be well without the youth that mortgage it and prepare it! And the youth cannot on its own know about the future if they do not hear about the past. The past and the future must come together somewhere. We need a joined-up way of thinking. This way is neither only about the past, nor only about the future, but in the middle… in the here and now.