Fidel Castro, one of the world’s most iconic leaders of the 21st century, died aged 90 last Friday. He was a man of contrasting contradictions, as Chofamba Sithole put it.
A polarising figure, even in his death, regarded as a champion for the poor by some and a ruthless dictator by those with dissenting views.
But for all his faults, he cannot be faulted for walking the talk, Cuba is a living testimony of the virtues of socialism, accessible free health care, free education and free public transport.
This is unlike the thieves we erroneously address by some fancy titles such as presidents and prime ministers here in Africa. All they are good at is just talking.
But have you ever wondered why these thieves and murderers continue to have a strong following, both within their respective countries and across the continent?
I have struggled to understand this paradox for a very long time. I just could not understand how incompetent, corrupt, murderous and thieving leaders could be so popular on the continent.
Dear reader, if you are in Zimbabwe, I know it is a hard pill to swallow, but yes, President Robert Mugabe is actually received to wild cheers at international gatherings across the continent. They sing his praises and even glorify him as a true champion of black people.
These praise singers have no desire to acknowledge Gukurahundi, the murderous military campaign he carried out in Matabeleland and Midlands provinces in the early 1980s.
Their so-called champion of black people actually has several skeletons in his closet. Have they not heard about his glaring incompetence and corruption?
If you ask me, he is doing quite a sterling job, ruining and transforming our beautiful Zimbabwe into the mess it is today. Yet they remain unmoved, Mugabe is their champion and their hero.
I must confess without any shame that during my early days in Europe, I encountered a lot of Africans who saw Mugabe in a positive light.
With each encounter, I tried to offer a counter narrative, pointing them to Gukurahundi and how the country was run down by his incompetence and corruption, but I quickly learnt that no one was buying into my narrative.
Thus, I began to speak my mind less and listened more to what they had to say. During that process, I gained some valuable insight into this paradox.
If you will allow me, I want to share with you these insights. They might not be profound, but they can help explain why such people have a solid support base and can be at times very popular.
We are creatures of habit
We are told human beings are by nature creatures of habit. I was reminded of this truism a week ago, when a friend was celebrating outgoing United States President Barack Obama’s legacy on his Facebook wall.
He was expounding how much he loved and admired Obama. Being the eager pan-African I am, I sought to expose Obama’s imperialist credentials and put his legacy into a different perspective.
I commented on my friend’s post with a link to Obama’s drone policy record in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia, where 90% of the several thousand killed were civilians. I was quickly told that anti-Obama sentiments were unwelcome on his wall.
Once people support someone, it becomes difficult to break that chain. They are even willing to ignore some harsh truths that contradict their emotions.
Even though former United States President George W Bush killed less civilians with his drone policy than Obama, he got more flak from the media and the world at large.
Bush is bad, while Obama is a good guy and everything is seen through those lenses.
Zimbabwe’s former Vice-President Joice Mujuru and many other former Zanu PF members adored the ruling party, even though they could see how corrupt, incompetent and evil their party was, they could not imagine themselves outside it.
They had to be expelled for them to be shaken out of their old habits and chart a new way forward.
When people fall in love with a political party or a demagogue, who is bold enough to touch on some very difficult topics in their society, logic becomes secondary to their emotions, as was witnessed by Donald Trump’s recent victory in the US presidential elections.
Never expect these people to be rational, like a woman in an abusive relationship, they will make excuses for their party or leader, hoping against hope that things will change for the better.
In the land of the blind the one eyed is king/queen
The average African citizen has given up on the leadership on the continent. Poor leadership is ingrained in his/her subconscious, he/she does not expect much anymore.
Despite Mugabe’s many faults and shortcomings, Africans regard him as their hero. They respect him for standing up against the West.
This is because leaders in their home countries share Mugabe’s many faults and weaknesses, but they do not have the spine to stand up to the West.
Surely in this land of the blind, the one-eyed Mugabe appears to be king.
The same goes for South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters leader, Julius Malema. I do not need to work in the South African public protector’s office to know corruption when I see it. Everyone knows he was a “tenderpreneur” benefiting corruptly from his African National Congress association.
Yet Malema is the most popular politician across the continent under the age of 40. It is because he is bold enough to talk about the difficult questions that South Africa cannot afford to ignore. Another one-eyed king in the land of the blind.
Inasmuch as one might despise Mugabe and Malema for their lack of integrity, one cannot disagree with their views on land and our natural resources.
For Africa cannot begin the serious talk of decolonisation without addressing the land question and the exploitation of our natural resources.
Young people arise
When ordinary people celebrate mediocrity, it is a clear sign that there is dearth of leadership on the continent.
Young peoples must take full responsibility for not stepping up and filling the void.
Africa needs a new generation of leaders who will speak to these pan-African issues; young men and women of integrity who are not afraid to stand up to the ever bullying and patronising West.
But more importantly visionaries who will fulfil Africa’s potential by not talking the talk but by walking the walk.