From the outhouse to the White House


Former President Mandela in his autobiographical work, Long Walk to Freedom, profiles his early life, coming of age, education and 27 years in prison representing a journey travelled towards a goal of freedom, justice and equality.

The long walk took Mandela to the State House, South Africa, and nothing in his previous journey could conceivably have prepared him for the responsibilities that he assumed as a state actor.

Mandela, once described as a terrorist, acquired a new persona in State House.

In the United States of America, on election night in 2008, the gospel choir sang Victory, victory, victory . . . victory is mine at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, where Martin Luther King (Jr) was a pastor in the 1960s while hundreds of African Americans burst into tears and fell on their knees as Barack Obama was made president-elect of the country.

The victory is ours and yet the pain remains mine. The outhouse is like the plantation, devoid of the institutional and administrative structures that characterise centres of power.

Most of the post-colonial African state actors practically walked into the houses of state with minimal preparation.

The absence of a support system is all too obvious as many of the occupants of state houses are in reality lonely individuals surrounded by people who tell them what they want to hear.

State actors are often expected to make informed choices and decisions and yet in truth and fact the White House is just another glorified prison.

Although many people genuinely believe that Mandela’s journey ended in freedom, but to those who know better, he was no freer in the house of state than he was in prison.

The majority of people find themselves outside the houses of state to the extent that no investment is made in understanding the true nature of the state system.

The constitutional order that provides a framework within which the state system is structured and functions is complex.

At the top of the pyramid of political state power is the president. In countries that have adopted the republican form of government, the president comes from the womb of a political party, but once he or she takes an oath of office, he or she ceases to represent the party that nominated them.

The president takes an oath to serve the republic and not his or her party and yet all too often the incumbents believe and act otherwise.

The journey from the outhouse to the house of state does not transform the person who traverses it into a superhuman being from whom extraordinary outcomes can be expected.

The incumbent will still be as human as the weakest person in the pyramid.

The people who have access to the incumbent ordinarily become the gatekeepers. With gatekeepers distortions are inevitable.

When Obama was elected, many African Americans naïvely thought that their day had arrived, only to find that the difference was the same.

Obama, the president, is as human as the senator from Illinois and yet the expectations of what he can do are exaggerated.

Mandela acquired celebrity status for what he endured in the journey to the mountain top and yet the condition of the people he sacrificed so much for has regrettably not changed since when he was president.

The people living in shacks have discovered that the last 17 years of independence have not produced the outcomes that they would have wanted or expected.

To what extent can any president engineer social outcomes? The expectation is that when a person assumes the highest office in the land, he or she has the knowledge to capture the universe of the dreams and hopes of all the people in the valley or outside to the extent that he or she is expected to know better and act wisely.

Experience and history have taught us otherwise. It would be counterproductive to invest any human being with too much power for such power can easily be abused.

The journey from the outhouse to state house is fraught with its own dangers. Even in post-colonial Africa, the humanly imposed constraints and roadblocks discourage people from even dreaming of the making the journey.

A joke has often been made that many vice-presidents in Africa take the oath with the full knowledge that they will never get to the top seat.

The White House represents the Promised Land, but only for the incumbent. Experience has shown that once elected, it is difficult for people to relinquish power and allow other persons to make the same journey.

Former President Mandela could easily have made the choice to remain in the house of state for life using the simple logic that after such a painful journey he needed more time to address the ills of apartheid and no other South African was competent to assume the highest office in the land.
When the house of the people becomes a permanent home then we must know something is fundamentally wrong with the construction and performance of the post-colonial order.

State House belongs to all the people of the relevant jurisdiction. It is meant to welcome many faces and yet in reality the house is often converted into a private residence for the incumbent.

The election of Obama as president produced its own dynamic and precedent. The American narrative has changed forever. People with strange names and backgrounds now know that their dreams can be realised in a lifetime.

The door to the house of the people has now been left wide open and the future will be a story of many strange people also asserting their rights to use the house as a temporary place of residence.

On his journey to the house of the people, Obama borrowed extensively from the Bible to make his case that the election would bring change to America.

For many that thought the change would mean that their lives would be changed for the better merely because an African American is the temporary resident at the state house, history has once again proved them wrong.

However, what cannot be denied is that the mere fact that Obama is in the state house as a principal represents change in America just as was the case when persons once described as terrorists also moved into houses of state.

What lessons do we learn from the transformation of ordinary people to super persons in the state system?

What we do know is that human life is temporary. In fact, some describe life as a dream. If this is the case, then why would it be in the national interest for the house of the people to be converted into a private residence for a few?

State power is a consequence of choices made by sovereign citizens. It represents borrowed power.

Even Obama, in as much as his election is part of American history, is acutely aware that he has to earn the right to stay in the house of the people.

The right of occupation has to be linked to the ability of the incumbent to inspire citizens to believe in the promise.

The office of the people was never meant to be used as a theatre of conspiracy and arbitrary action.

Africa’s future is only secure if we make the right investments in knowledge.

Mutumwa Mawere is a businessman based in South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.