Obama in South Africa and the curse of our flawed heroes

_102560850_mediaitem102560848Former US President Barack Obama has just concluded a moving lecture in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was the key speaker in the celebration marking the 100th anniversary of Mandela’s birth.

I say the speech was “moving” because I found myself inspired, nodding and agreeing with much of what Obama said. He spoke about the importance of helping the poor, loving our neighbors and championing the cause of justice — especially for the less privileged amongst us

Obama grabbed Mandela’s legacy and wielded it against the forces of injustice, oppression and inequality that continue to pervade an otherwise “progressive” 21st century.

“Stick to what is true. Stick to what you know is right in your hearts. Ultimately right makes might. Ultimately the better story wins out. My message to you is keep believing. Keep marching. Keep raising your voice. Now is a good time to be fired up.” – Barack Obama

Who can argue against that? He went ahead to quote Madiba on the value of universal human rights and freedom, saying: “We have a responsibility to protest in the name of universal freedom.”

Yet, I couldn’t help but notice that in the midst of all the cheers and claps, the shares and retweets, there were many people who did not, could not, approve of Obama’s message. More specifically, there are many people who listened to the lecture with disapproving head shakes and regretful sighs.

When Obama said, for instance, that he believed in a vision “built on the premise that all people are created equal,” some people felt it necessary to point out Obama’s failure to live up to his promise to close Guantanamo Bay, while some religious people highlighted his “evolution” towards accepting of gay marriage.

If you live in America, the lines between strong supporters and critics of Obama can be conveniently drawn between the Democrats and Republican camps. For instance, if you were to listen to Dinesh D’Souza, you would find it very difficult to believe anything good can come out of Obama’s mouth.

Yet, this is the world we live in today. We are so enamored with hero worship that we forget how often the person preaching the truth we believe in may have lived out a life that starkly contradicted those truths.

We live in a world where we want our favorite speakers, preachers and writers to promote societal values that neither they nor we could ever come close to living out. Little surprise that we have politicians at the forefront of the #MeToo movement being outed for being perpetrators of the very sexual violence they rail against.

Name your hero, and I will point out 99 reasons why they are not worth being anyone’s heroes. Remember Thomas Jefferson who was the main contributor to the US Declaration of Indepence? He of the “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” fame? Well, he also owned slaves and even bought two slaves to work at the White House when he became president in 1801.

It really depends on whose script you’re reading: Gandhi was wishy washy about supporting Britain in World War I and even actively recruited Indian soldiers for the British war effort; Martin Luther King Jr allegedly cheated on his wife; and even Mandiba, the man behind the event in South Africa today, is said to have sold out black South Africans in his negotiations with the colonial government.

While some may opt to press their confirmation bias and rationalise all the flaws of their heroes, my point is far more subtle and fundamental. There is no single human being who has actually lived up to the message they preach. There will always be something to criticise, something to disqualify them. All have sinned and fall short of the glories they proclaim.

Yet we continue to admire and celebrate and quote fallen men for the few words of hope and inspiration they share with the world. Amidst the relentless darkness that shrouds this fallen world, these people that we call heroes have managed to shine the much needed rays of hope and faith and love that is much needed in this world – if not in deed, at least in words. If not in all their deeds, at least in many of their deeds.

Fallen human beings are still able to inspire us to rise from our fallenness — or at least to want to rise. Their falleness does not disqualify the truth of their message, even though it may sometimes make it harder for us to buy the truth from them. You see, in a world that demonizes any semblance of higher beings and transcendent human principles that cannot be deduced through science and rationality, we are left rather wanting for heroes.

A fundamentally secular atheistic worldview that has no room for beings embodying truth, love, kindness and all things humane (be it in myth or reality), will always be frustrated by our flawed heroes. There will always be a reason to criticise anyone who is admired in this world.

Clearly, we need new heroes. But until we get perfect heroes, we will have to learn to make do with the flawed heroes that are available to us — Obama included.



Taxi app companies exploiting rising individualism to hamper industrial action in Kenya


I almost got lynched by a mob of Taxi drivers on Tuesday. Taxi app drivers have been on strike since Monday. They want fair pricing from Uber, Taxify, Little and other service providers.

However, some drivers have not been taking part in the strike, which means that they are sabotaging the efforts of their companions. As part of their mass action, the striking drivers have been flagging down other operating cabs, removing the passengers from the cars and forcing the rogue driver to join the cause.

In a few cases, vehicles of non-compliant drivers were vandalised, leading to millions in damages. My brief encounter with the angry drivers, however, was not because I was a passenger, but because my journalistic instincts led me to start filming some drivers roughing up their colleague just outside my house. The drivers mobbed me and demanded that I delete the footage.

Luckily, I talked them out of their outrage and they calmed down enough to even engage me in friendly banter. I was curious about their grievances and they were happy to have one more pair of ears to vent at. The drivers explained that beyond the grievances with the low pay, they are also not happy with the fact that many of their colleagues don’t seem to be taking the strike seriously.

One driver argued that these “wasaliti” (betrayers) are unwilling to sacrifice a few days’ income and yet they will still benefit from the fruits of the striking drivers’ labor.

“It is very unfair. Do they think that we are fools parking our cars and choosing not to work? We are grow men and many of us here have families. It is bad enough that these app-owners are taking advantage of us, we cannot allow these rogue elements to get away with it,” said one driver who did not want to be named.

His sentiments bring to surface a worrying trend in recent mass actions in Kenya. There is a rising individualism that is eroding the sense of comradeship that is often the ethos behind industrial mass action. Little wonder last year former Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero could boldly say he would not pay doctors who had taken part of the 100-day strike. He had observed that some doctors were willing to let self-interest outweigh the collective good of fighting the system.

This card has also been used by the national government on several occasions when it threatened to withhold pay from those who took part in industrial action. The unspoken implication is that the government understands that self-interest will sabotage mass action, despite contrary efforts by union leaders.

Employers have long known that class consciousness and organization amongst the workers is a powerful weapon in the fight against the aggressive anti-labor politics of neoliberal capitalism. In fact, employees who seem enthusiastic about labor union activities are often targeted and discriminated against in the form of wage cuts and reduced benefits. It doesn’t help that social media has made it easier for employers to pinpoint which workers are taking part in industrial action.

In situations where the employers have such a tight hold on the modern means of production such as the online-taxi business, you end up with a strange situation whereby the employer also “owns” the customers. This is a strange phenomenon especially in the taxi business in Kenya where those who go into it often regard themselves as “self-employed”.

Such incidences as the “unjust” pricing reveal that this business that was once the domain of self-employment is no different from being employed by a boss who neither cares about your individual welfare nor is threatened by your attempts at collective action.

This rising individualism in Kenya’s industrial action scene is worrying. It is both a product of shifting economic dynamics and an apparent lack of foresight in our embrace of these seemingly “life-changing” technological business solutions. Something needs to give. I wish our cab drivers all the best in their challenging but noble fight.