By Rebecca Davis

Published the 05 Nov 2013 on

Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters have invoked the legacy of former Burkina Faso president Thomas Sankara as a model of governance they apparently wish to emulate. And indeed, Sankara remains one of the least-remembered, but most creative and principled, of post-independence African leaders. Malema and his fighters might particularly like to remember Sankara’s commitment to an austere personal lifestyle, and the total emancipation of women.

My local bookshop doesn’t stock any biographies of Thomas Sankara. By one measure, this isn’t surprising. Sankara’s name is rarely heard when the giants of the African post-independence movement are mentioned: Nkrumah, Nyerere, Lumumba. Possibly this has to do with the shortness of his rule over Burkina Faso: just four years, between 1983 and 1987. Possibly it has to do with the extent to which he alienated Western powers through his insistence on his country’s autonomy. Possibly it has to do with the murky circumstances surrounding his assassination in 1987, at the age of 37.

But it’s undoubtedly a pity, because Sankara’s model of leadership was one of the boldest and most principled that the continent has ever seen. The news that the EFF would be introducing a “Thomas Sankara Oath” in order for its office-bearers to follow in Sankara’s footsteps was interesting, and optimistic. Sankara’s leadership was synonymous with personal austerity. Malema will go on trial next month charged with fraud, corruption, money-laundering and racketeering.

Despite this, EFF supporters invoke comparisons between Sankara and Malema as apt. “In Burkina Faso they had their Thomas Sankara; Cuba had their Fidel Castro; Venezuela had Hugo Chávez; Zimbabwe had their Robert Mugabe; China had their Mao Zedong and in South Africa we have our very own young vibrant Julius Malema,” an EFF Gauteng member wrote following the EFF’s launch in Marikana. There are indeed ideological similarities between Sankara and Malema, with both pushing a pro-nationalisation, pro-land redistribution, anti-imperialist agenda. But particularly in personal respects, there seem stark differences also.

Sankara came to power in what was previously the French colony of Upper Volta in a military coup in 1983. Sankara wanted to restore the dignity and pride of his people, so he took a number of symbolic steps, including changing the name of the country to ‘Burkina Faso’, meaning ‘Land of the Upright Men’, or ‘Country of the Incorruptible’. As a keen musician, he also composed a new national anthem himself.

Sankara immediately set about carrying out projects of nationalisation and of land redistribution, which saw the peasantry benefit most. He was adamant that the country should become agriculturally self-sustaining, and wheat production increased substantially under his rule. “Four years after Sankara came to power, Burkina Faso was practically self-sufficient in its demand for basic foodstuffs,” wrote Peter Dorrie for Think Africa Press in 2012. “Today, the government has to import much of its food, even in years with a good harvest.”

He wanted to redefine Burkina Faso’s relationship with the West. After Sankara took power, he demanded that cooperation agreements with former colonial power France be modified to talk of “mutual assistance” rather than aid. “If Burkina Faso was unable to make material gifts to France, Mr. Sankara told his shocked French partners, the immigrants who sweep the streets of Paris for meager wages should be considered a form of reciprocal African help,” the New York Times recalled, ten years after his death.

Sankara saw his most important project as “transform[ing] people’s attitudes”, releasing the Burkinabe – as he called them – from a neo-colonial mindset. For this reason he was opposed to the idea of foreign aid and the financial assistance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. “He who feeds you, controls you,” Sankara said. He was unconcerned with international opinion, also pulling Burkina Faso out of the 1984 Olympic Games in solidarity with the oppressed black majority of South Africa.

Education and health were priorities for Sankara. Within his first year of office, 2,5 million Burkinabe children were vaccinated. His was reportedly one of the first African governments to publicly recognise the HIV epidemic. School attendance more than doubled within his first two years of leadership. Sankara also revealed environmental foresight, launching a campaign to plant 10 million trees to prevent the deforestation through encroaching of the Sahara. Even today, trees are reportedly planted in Burkina Faso as a marker of celebration at birthdays, weddings and graduations.

Sankara despised the modern African bourgeoisie, once describing them as “passive and pathetic consumers”, who “wallow in terminology fetishised by the West just as they wallow in Western whiskey and champagne in shady-looking lounges”. But he was also completely opposed to the inordinate power held by traditional leaders in rural areas, and his efforts to revoke these privileges supposedly earned him many enemies.

The Burkina Faso leader had certain distinct blind spots: his rule was by no means unimpeachable and had an authoritarian bite. Sankara replaced political parties with “committees”, which he saw as a more direct form of public participation. He didn’t care for the unions, and after a general strike in 1985, he fired 1,300 civil servants and replaced them with often under-qualified loyalists. He instituted a type of public justice in the form of “revolutionary tribunals”, where people were punished for corruption but apparently also far vaguer crimes like being a lazy worker, or a “counter-revolutionary”.

Sankara also increasingly clamped down on media freedom – somewhat ironically, since during his stint as Information Minister in the previous government, he reportedly resigned with the words “Misfortune to those who gag the people!”

In the end his fears for the future of his revolution were realised. Sankara was shot dead on October 15, 1987, in circumstances which remain unclear but which many people believe involved the man who took over the leadership of Burkina Faso and still holds it today, Blaise Compaoré. Compaoré soon won back the support of Western powers by re-liberalising the economy and immediately re-joining the IMF and the World Bank. Today Burkina Faso remains one of the least developed countries in the world.

Compaoré has now been in power for 26 years. Among the other trappings of a flashy lifestyle, he reportedly boasts a presidential jet. His home village Ziniaré, meanwhile, has apparently benefited from a hydro project which has seen power go to his village while big towns are reportedly ignored. Sankara must be turning in his grave.

The aspect in which Sankara’s leadership was most singular and impressive, after all, was in the degree to which he eschewed the traditional perks of power. His salary was $450 a month, after he made radical pay-cuts to his and other top officials’ wages. It is now the stuff of legend that he made his ministers travel in the cheapest car available in Burkina Faso, a Renault. He spoke out vehemently against corruption; in 1983, addressing a rally in the capital, Ouagadougou, he complained: “The enemies of the people here inside the country are all those who have illicitly taken advantage of their social position and their place in the bureaucracy to enrich themselves. By means of bribery, manoeuvres, and forged documents, they have become shareholders in different companies.”

Little wonder that Andile Mngxitama chose Sankara as the antithesis of Malema in a passionate op-ed for the Sowetan in July 2011. Mngxitama bemoaned the fact that Malema could have chosen to follow the path of Sankara, but had instead established himself as an “opportunist” seeking to “amass great amounts of wealth through your political influence”. Mngxitama accused Malema of “literally join[ing] those who stole from us to set yourself up, while the people continue to suffer”.

Three years is a century in political terms, of course, and now Mngxitama and Malema are seemingly cosy bedfellows in the leadership of the EFF. Mngxitama has already been accused of his own hypocrisies, however. When the EFF officially launched in Marikana last month, it was announced that all their office-bearers would be made to sign the Thomas Sankara Oath, forcing them to use only public services in a tribute to the Burkina Faso leader.

“As a practical indication of my acknowledgement that the only way to ensure that the services I provide are of an acceptable standard, I hereby undertake to use the services that the public sector provides to the people. What is good for me is good for the people,” the oath reads. “I therefore declare that it is a criminal offence to use private services for myself, my family and my dependents, including, but not limited to, education, healthcare, housing and transport.” Mngxitama subsequently responded aggressively on Twitter when quizzed about the fact that his own child allegedly attends a private German school.

The other respect in which Malema et al would do well to closely scrutinise the leadership of Sankara is in the Burkina Faso president’s absolute commitment to the upliftment and equality of women. “The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion,” Sankara said. “It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky.”

In practical terms, Paula Akugizibwe wrote in an excellent recent piece, this meant that “feminism was a core element of political ideology” for Sankara. His government sought to outlaw female genital mutilation, forced marriages – and polygamy. Women were encouraged to return to work and school after bearing children, and Sankara actively sought out women to join both his cabinet and his military. Women were allowed to initiate divorce for the first time. The government also lobbied hard for the use of contraception. Perhaps most innovatively and unusually, in 1984 Sankara organised a day where men were encouraged to take on women’s roles – preparing meals, for instance, and going to the market – in order to personally experience conditions faced by women.

In other words, Sankara didn’t simply rail against violence against women or pay lip service to the need for gender parity. He was, to quote writer Sokari Ekrine, “meticulous in explaining class relations and the everyday ways in which African masculinities work in collaboration with capital in exploiting women’s labour and abuse of their dignity”.

The EFF Manifesto states that the party is against “the oppression of anyone based on their gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation, meaning that we are against patriarchy, sexism, and homophobia in all of its manifestations”. That’s good to hear, because in the past Julius Malema and his fellow EFF leader Floyd Shivambu have at various points displayed blatant sexism.

Floyd Shivambu was sued by City Press journalist Carien Du Plessis for referring to her as a “white bitch”, a case which he settled (calling it a “non-issue) two years later in 2012. “What is it about women that makes [Malema and Shivambu] go mental?” the Daily Maverick’s Sipho Hlongwane asked at the time, citing a number of offensive incidents. There was Malema’s reference to Lindiwe Mazibuko as a tea-girl. There was Malema’s description of Helen Zille as “an ugly woman in a blue dress dancing like a monkey”. Malema previously also insulted Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor’s accent.

And of course, Malema also said in 2009 that you could tell whether a woman had been raped by her conduct the next morning, because those who had been raped would never stay for breakfast or ask for taxi money. His comments in the heat of the Caster Semenya gender controversy also revealed problematic attitudes, suggesting as they did that intersex individuals were unknown to African culture: “In South Africa, in the villages, we only have boys and girls. A child is a boy or a girl,” Malema was reported as saying. “They can argue about this being determined scientifically, but in the villages we don’t see signs, we don’t have laboratories. When a child is born, we open its legs and that is the sign we use.”

Sankara’s legacy is not just about land and nationalisation, then, but also a deeply-held distaste for the personal enrichment of public servants and a deeply-held commitment to true gender equality. His was a rhetoric of dignity, strength, and self-sufficiency – but also tolerance. “Our demand is not to build a world for blacks alone and against other men,” he told a school in Harlem in 1984. “As black people, we want to teach other people how to love each other.” DM

Read more:
– Revisiting Thomas Sankara, 26 years later, on Pambazuka ;
– “Debt is a cleverly managed reconquest of Africa” – Thomas Sankara, on This is Africa;
-Thomas Sankara quotes about women, on the MsAfropolitan blog

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