The Necessity of Grassroots Leadership Among African People

In his autobiography, Malcolm X recounted an incident in which he and a “down town ‘leader’” were approached by a hustler in Harlem. The hustler spoke to Malcolm in slang, which the leader that Malcolm was with was unable to understand. Malcolm’s point in mentioning this is that often times the people who are appointed as leaders of the black masses are individuals who are so disconnected from the masses that they cannot even speak directly with the masses themselves. Malcolm explained:

The point I am making is that, as a "leader," I could talk over the ABC, CBS, or NBC microphones, at Harvard or at Tuskegee; I could talk with the so-called "middle class” Negro and with the ghetto blacks (whom all the other leaders just talked about).

The reality of the situation that African people find ourselves in is that the people who are presented as our leaders, spokespersons, and intellectuals are often individuals who are comfortably removed from the experiences, struggles, and culture of the African masses.

This very topic was addressed by the Mighty Chalkdust in a calypso in which he suggested that Trinidad should ditch the British parliamentary system and instead implement a system which selects political leaders based on that leader’s willingness to experience the pain and the struggles of common people.

In the second verse, Chalkdust intones:

All our problems the leader must now share

He must experience them firsthand

He must ground with the common man

To provide the right solution.

Those who are familiar with Walter Rodney’s book The Groundings with My Brothers would be very well-aware of what Chalkdust means by grounding with the common man. When Rodney was in Jamaica, he grounded with Jamaicans all over the island. Rodney also mentions grounding with people who were so poor that they were living in rubbish dumps. Rodney writes:

I have spoken in what people call ‘dungle’, rubbish dumps…People live in rubbish dumps. That is where the government puts people to live. Indeed, the government does not even want them to live in rubbish dumps. I do not know where they want them to go, because they bulldoze them off the rubbish dumps and send them God knows where.

Rodney also explained: “I sought them out where they lived, worked, worshipped, and had their recreation. In turn, they ‘checked’ me at work or at home, and together we ‘probed’ here and there, learning to recognise our common humanity.” This was especially important because Rodney was connecting with people who were severely dehumanized and neglected by the government of Jamaica.

Some of the worst examples of this disconnect between the impoverished and suffering masses and the political leadership can found in Africa. Take for example, Zaire under Mobutu. Mobutu was a millionaire who owned a yacht, a private jet, and several homes in Europe. Under Mobutu, Zaire was one of the poorest nations in Africa. Despite the fact that under Robert Mugabe’s leadership Zimbabwe became one of the poorest countries in Africa, Mugabe left behind 10 million dollars when he died. Mugabe wasn’t the only one who was enriching himself as the masses in Zimbabwe suffered. In 2013, the government spent $20 million to provide luxury cars to government ministers. In South Africa, President Jacob Zuma used taxpayer money to install a swimming pool in his house. The justification given for doing so was that the pool was also a water reserve in case of a fire.

Togo is yet another African nation where the political elite live comfortably, while children are made to attend schools which look like this:

One of the remarkable aspects of Thomas Sankara’s presidency is that when he came to power he actually reduced the salary of government ministers and ceased using luxury vehicles. Sankara was one of the few African presidents who did not use his position to enrich himself and who actually sought to ensure that the needs of his citizens were taken care of. Julius Nyerere is another African president who was known to have lived frugally. Nyerere was one of the poorest presidents in Africa and when he resigned from his position, he rode himself home on a bicycle. This type of leadership is unfortunately very rare in Africa and rare among African people in general.

Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.

Dwayne Wong (Omowale) is a Guyanese born Pan-Africanist, author, and law student.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store