Of sacred cows ...
Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya Wednesday, 26 July 2005 08:22
Wole Soyinka
You are visiting South Africa to take part in a series of public lectures on the “meaning of Nelson Mandela”. What is the meaning of Wole Soyinka?
I would not bother to describe myself -- that is for others to do. Maybe the question is: Where do I feel most comfortable?

I am a playwright, but I take out my polemics in the essays I write. I find fulfilment in expressing ideas through essays. I would say that I am a playwright, essayist and social commentator.

And the meaning of Mandela?
I doubt anyone would want to give a literal answer to the question; it would be pointless. I see it, rather, as an intellectual provocation to discuss Mandela from a chosen perspective.

We are making a voyage around Nelson Mandela from our own perspective. As a cultural worker, I choose to look at him through a cultural prism, paying attention to his strong personal identity. He is a man who has identified himself not only with the black race of Africa but with the notion of one humanity.

Mandela is often described as a man of peace and reconciliation, yet one reason he is a hero to millions is that he helped found and command a guerrilla army. Is that not a contradiction?
Being a man of war does not mean you cannot be a man of peace. Peace does not contradict justice, but, to attain justice, certain methods may be adopted which appear, on the surface, to be a contradiction. It is a contradiction only in quotes.

What lessons can be drawn from Mandela’s life and politics?
One of the major lessons is that the past must be put into its proper perspective so that it does not inhibit progress. Mandela does not preach that the past should be obliterated -- indeed, it must always be part of one’s perspective.

But, while credit must be given to leaders for genuine efforts to liberate their people, you cannot allow the weight of their past contribution to burden the future.

[Zimbabwean President Robert] Mugabe is an obvious example. He is a man who should not be short-changed [for his contribution to the Zimbabwean struggle], but now he has become the very thing he fought against.

History is full of genuine freedom fighters who became monsters. But we cannot allow our gratitude for their contribution to become a tool of our oppression.

How can civil society tell when a genuine leader shows signs of turning into a dictator?
The moment a leader behaves as if he believes power is a personal possession, rather than something that belongs to a collective. When he begins to suppress freedom of speech, of association and is not responsive to initiatives for change. That, of course, includes the usual things such being corrupt, having disregard for the rule of law and being unaccountable.

Is civil society in Africa fulfilling this role?
It has become stronger over the past decade. It needs to be strong and remain a watchdog over governments. The so-called masses, the workers and the poor, are politically sophisticated and have identified principles that go beyond bread-and-butter issues. They want assurance of their dignity, of their right not to be arbitrarily arrested, not to have their homes destroyed over their heads and not to be treated like children. If you deny people the right to express themselves, you treat them as children -- the same way that the colonial masters used to treat us.

How can Africans advocate these rights and still seek to benefit from globalisation? Doesn’t globalisation imply minimal government and the harsh “structural adjustment” of economies?
If you look at the poorest and the richest countries, one thing that remains constant is the demand for the right to a voice. This includes having a say in government spending and priorities.

Governments often have to decide [on national priorities] in the light of their countries’ earnings and trade position. The trouble comes when they do not invite opinion or explain their positions. It is not only every four or five years that you need to explain your policies. You should treat them [voters] as adults and engage them in debate all the time.

Do governments have a responsibility to create conditions for a vibrant civil society?
I don’t think so. That would be asking for too much.

How, then, should civil society in Africa strengthen itself?
Success breeds imitation. Africans have seen the success of civil society in other countries, particularly in Europe. They have seen how other countries have overcome Stalinism, and dictatorships being challenged.

In Nigeria, for example, civil society rose against a brutal dictatorship. And after [former strongman General Sani] Abacha’s dictatorship, we have remained on our guard. Civil society challenged the new government when it began to erode civil rights. When civil society wanted to organise a national conference, the government talked threateningly of “near treason”. When civil society showed it would not back down, the government went ahead with its own national conference, after refusing to hold it for five years. This resulted in a deadlock, as you would expect, because it was done without sincerity.

What about divided societies?
There will always be differences within society. There can be several national characters, within one nation, that sometimes seem to be at war with one another. The key to managing differences is the rule of law and ensuring that the law is applied equally.

This is something South Africa has demonstrated and where it has taken the lead in rejecting the concept of sacred cows. You get sacred cows when you have a culture of impunity and erode public confidence in the rule of law.

Are you referring to the prosecution of former deputy president Jacob Zuma?

Factions within the ruling party and its allies are not happy with that prosecution ...
You will always find those who want to cling on to the concept of the sacred cow. The voice that triumphs eventually is that of the rule of law. The important thing is that he [Zuma] is being taken through the process. Society must take it in its stride.