Of Humanizing Power and African Democracies: Reflections from Graca Machel
The first post-viva day is a really difficult moment for PHD candidates. You are nursing a kind of hangover as you wait to work on your minor/major corrections or working towards the submission of your final thesis. Today I was on the latter. Following my supervisor’s advice, I found myself at St. Anne’s College listening to Graca Machel, now my role model African woman, herself a human rights activist. Her Devaki Jain Inaugural Lecture on the topic of ‘Leadership in Modern Africa: A feminist perspective’ was exactly what a young African woman like me needed to listen to before she leaves Oxford.
Besides being the wife of two presidents (Yay!), Graca Machel has built her career in public service and in international organizations like the UN. She has shaped the image of African women in leadership by fervently delivering on different tasks such as her outstanding report to the UN on the impacts of armed conflicts on children, her involvement in the peace mediation talks in Kenya in 2008, as well as being one of the Elders. And many more. Although Graca starting the lecture by making the statement that she was an activist, not an academic, I was intrigued by her conversation on the subject of the femininity of African leadership, humanizing power and democracy. My particular takeaways from the lecture were the two paradoxes that limit women and youth empowerment:
1. Creating opportunities for African women to become leaders without driving fundamental change in the institutions of power
As a way of changing the narrative of the African women, or rather of Africa in general, Graca’s speech was more focused on multiplying faces and amplifying the voices of African women. Increasing the number of women in leadership, business, health, finance, etc. should be commensurate to the structural changes that allow sharing of power (or humanizing power) so that the voices of women are heard. This is contrary to the current trend of creating tokenistic women representations in positions of leadership, but maintaining the power with the institutions (which are often male-led).
Graca argued this by in applauding a number of African women who were leading in different sectors, and highlighted the kind of challenges they have had to overcome, the mistakes they have made, their successes, but also the challenge of dealing with their feminine nature as women in power. Even though women numbers are increasing in leadership positions and in different sectors, there is also evidence that power is still far away from them. An example is of the UN Women which has the least budget in comparison to other UN agencies, or the case of women representatives in the Kenyan county governments, but not a 30% representation in the parliament.
However, there are achievements to be applauded. That there are more and more women becoming leaders it is no longer a taboo for an African child to imagine of a female president, or for a young African woman to aspire for positions of power in academia, business, or even in the public service. Therefore, the African women (and youth too) are an emerging movement, a giant one, which has little recognition both in the Africa rising narrative and in the global scenes. Even so, they will continue to shape the continent and will eventually produce a new narrative on Africa, even challenging those who are in power: Because there is will.
2. Claiming democracy, ‘which is the rule of majority’, without including African women and youth who form 30% and over 50% of the African population
It is such a paradox that even though over 60% of the African population are children and youth below 25 years of age, their leaders are ‘grey-haired’ who often ensure the structures of power that marginalize these people are perpetuated from one institution to another.
Although Graca did not dwell much on the subject of youth at this lecture, there are several points that could be drawn for example her explanation of #Rhodesmustfall and #Feesmustfall incidences in South Africa. It is perhaps the nature of the generation of young people being impatient with the lack of power, which remains with institutions while the people remain marginalized and disenfranchised. They know they need change, but the idea of change they really need is not available for them to experience. And as such, even when their demands are listened to, the expected resolutions are not commensurate to their needs.
However, young people are also rising. Historically, it is the students’ movements that drove South African apartheid, and most of the revolutions for independence in most African countries. Other movements of young people, in politics, in business and in other sectors are emerging and they will shake the continent’s leadership.
Overall, to attain any meaningful leadership by and empowerment of the African women and youth, there is need to strengthen legitimacy for these peoples. This means going beyond the vote (and tokenistic representations) and ensuring fundamental changes in the structures of power: feminizing power and challenging our current democratic systems.