18.04.2009 Feature Article

Africa craves more role models!

Africa craves more role models!
18.04.2009 LISTEN

Africa – and Africans – needs more role models. I am becoming increasingly convinced that the road to a successful and vibrant Africa is paved with magnanimous leaders and admirable role models. With the right leadership and appropriate role models, the message that Africans can achieve something worthwhile will resonate more effectively with the masses. Unfortunately, this most important of messages has hitherto not found sufficient roots among many of our continent's sons and daughters. It seems our political leaders have failed us in this particular area.

Africans need to know that they have the capacity to achieve and the wherewithal to realise their aspirations. Oftentimes, it takes examples set by our kin to demonstrate such possibilities to us. This is why we need undisputed African role models; people who inspire en mass.

I have observed – with renewed hope – the impact that President Obama's ascent to become the 'leader of the free-world' has had on many an African. Until Obama's achievement, many of us believed it was impossible for an African-American to become President of the United States at this time; now, many 'black American' youngsters will add 'President' to the list of things they want to be when they grow up.

Perpetually 'chained' minds
As a consequence of some unfortunate historical developments, Africans have – largely and unfortunately – become conditioned to see themselves as lacking and not quite on a par with European, Oriental, and Indian counterparts. This belief – which has been with us for generations – has become embedded in our psyche for some time; it manifests in various ways from time to time. Consequently, Africa's children have often looked elsewhere for leadership and inspiration.

Our inferiority complex is evident from the beliefs, pronouncements, and behaviours of many of our people. Some bleach their skins and apply cosmetics in a bid to appear more Caucasian; others copy western practices and behaviours, such as style of speech and dress.

I recall my utter disappointment when I learnt that in some parts of Africa, indigenous workers will work selflessly and tirelessly for fair-skinned foreign bosses, yet they show little regard to their local, indigenous managers. The physical shackles were done away with decades ago, but psychological remnants still exist, and they need to be addressed.

As long as Africa continues to underachieve in the modern world – it has to be noted that Africa has had some truly great achievements in the distant past – there will be a school of thought that will continue to forward the idea that we are not as capable as our counterparts from other parts of the world. Africans would have little evidence and few examples of laudable achievements with which to refute this and similar racist and xenophobic claims.

Visible impact of role models
Over the last few years, I have observed the pride and unbridled elation with which Africans have embraced those among her sons and daughters that have forced their way through the proverbial 'glass ceiling'. These people have become heroes across the continent, as well as potent symbols of Africa's potential and her desire for recognition.

Underachievement and a lack of clear direction – contributed to by various leaders across the continent – have damaged Africa's image and reputation around the world. The rest of the world tends to see us as perpetually poor and dependent on 'handouts'. Thankfully, our great achievers have – in a way – countered some of these perceptions and helped put Africa back on the map. Perhaps more importantly, they have given an entire continent real hope!

Having people we can look up to – role models – and emulate is inspirational. The notion that we can be like them and emulate their achievements is an important motivational force; hope is, after all, critical to human survival. The likes of Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, and more recently, Barack Obama, have been worthy role models for Africans right across the globe.

Mandela – with his selflessness, leadership qualities, and limitless determination – has demonstrated that we can achieve the impossible as long as we retain passion, courage and conviction. Annan – with his meek and diplomatic style – has shown that we can rise to the top of our professionals, anywhere in the world, through dedication and focus. Obama – with his obvious intellect and powerful oratory – has fulfilled a long-standing dream and inspired many, Africans and non-Africans alike. These people, unsurprisingly, have become 'demigods'.

Role models can expedite change
It's become apparent to me more high-profile African role models – of the calibre of Kofi Annan – can have profound positive impact on the continent. Their presence alone can help drive and expedite change, a consequence of their examples and inspiration. We only have to look at Kofi Annan's achievements at the world stage, Nelson Mandela's grace and leadership, and the wonder of Barack Obama, and observe the pride and inspiration Africans gleam from these individuals to see this.

I have lost count of the number of people I know who have been inspired and 'mobilised' by Obama. My dear old mother – who previously had little interest in political matters – has been energised to an extent that she now frequently speaks, albeit jokingly, of standing as an MP for her hometown.

We need more top-notch political role models, more business and economic role models, more high-profile entrepreneurs and achievers, and more female role models. The key qualification for being a role model – as opposed to other forms of 'leadership' – is the doing; you can only be a role model if you have actually done something and led by example. Imagine the impact that many more Kofi Annans, Nelson Mandelas, and Barack Obamas would have on our continent. It could be a key driver of development and positive change.

Such powerful and laudable examples of leadership might make our political leaders more focused on looking out for the interests, welfare, and security of their people. They might help or enable our people how to really hold their leaders to account. They might make our children more resilient and focused, as they witness that 'glass ceilings' can be broken.

Calling all 'closet role models'
Not all of Africa's prospective role models are yet to be born. Some exist now, all around us. Even with my limited exposure, I know many Africans who have the pedigree and track record to be role models for many of us. I can only speculate as to how many potential role models are out there, who could encourage and inspire many of us to achieve great things.

Unfortunately, for one reason or another, many of these potential role models don't always get the platforms to inspire and lead. Sometimes this is by choice, but often our systems don't avail the right opportunities for such people. The vindictive nature of our socio-political activities often turns many of these capable people off. Those who still want to help or make an impact often seek to pass on their 'pearls of wisdom' in ways other than via political platforms, but their reach is rather limited.

It is high time we encouraged more of our great achievers and potential role models to step up and inspire the masses through deeds, achievements, and leadership. We need to recognise such people and highlight their achievements. We must make them celebrities of sorts, so their names can sit alongside those of our sporting and movie stars. We should take pride in telling our children about them, or invite them to lecture or give motivational speeches in our schools.

We also need to support and invest in them. Socially, politically, and professionally, we must afford these people opportunities and platforms to reach out to the rest of us, so they can in turn drive positive change on our behalf.

It is time to let our 'closet role models' know that Africa needs them. The greatest achievement they could ever have is to be immortalised in African history, in education, and in the hearts and minds of Africans everywhere.