By Farirai Machivenyika

Published: 20121126 on

Harare – Just a week before his assassination, Burkina Faso’s then President, that icon of Pan-Africanism Thomas Sankara, said: “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.”

His murder on October 15, 1987, marked the end of one of a man whose vision for Africa was debatably second-to-none: a man who believed in Africa’s right to determine its destiny economically, politically and culturally.

When Sankara got into power, he quickly initiated projects to benefit the masses. These ranged from large-scale immunization schemes, construction of schools and roads, to protection of women’s rights, among many others.

Sankara sold off the government fleet of Mercedes Benz cars and made the Renault 5 (the cheapest car sold in Burkina Faso at that time) the official service car of the ministers.

He also reduced the salaries of all public servants – including his own – and forbade the use of government chauffeurs and first-class air travel tickets for state business.

Sankara went further and redistributed land from the feudal landlords and gave it directly to the peasants.

Wheat production rose in three years from 1 700kg per hectare to 3 800kg, making the country food self-sufficient in that short space of time.

He opposed foreign aid, saying: “He, who feeds you, controls you.”

At international fora like the Organisation of African Unity, Sankara spoke against continued neo-colonial penetration of the continent through trade and finance, and urged repudiation of foreign debt.

He argued that the poor and exploited did not have an obligation to repay money to the rich and exploiting.

Enter Mr Mujica

Twenty-five years down the line, another President exhibiting several similarities, has risen and has in the process brought back to the fore fundamental questions on whether or not it is possible to have leaders that can live frugal lives in this age of flagrant exhibition of wealth by many in public office.

A documentary aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) recently showed how President Jose Mujica of Uruguay lives a modest life ‑ if modest is not be an overstatement contrary to what many of his ilk does.

President Mujica, who was elected head of the South American state of 3.3 million people, lives on what is essentially a rundown farm owned by his wife, and he works the land growing flowers.

His house is guarded by just two policemen – and his three-legged dog Manuela.

President Mujica has shunned the luxurious life in the country’s capital Montevideo and donates about 90 percent of his monthly salary, equivalent to US 000, to charity.

Is there any wonder why he has been labeled the poorest president in the world?

“I may appear to be an eccentric old man… But this is a free choice.

“I’ve lived like this most of my life,” he said, as he sat on an old chair in his garden, using a cushion favoured by Manuela the dog.

“I can live well with what I have,” he stressed.

His charitable donations ‑ which benefit poor people and small entrepreneurs ‑ mean his salary is roughly in line with the average Uruguayan income of US5 a month.

Mujica, who came into office in 2009, drives a 1987 VW Beetle and in 2010, his annual personal wealth declaration ‑ mandatory for public officials in Uruguay ‑ was US 800, the value of his 1987 Volkswagen Beetle.

This year, he added half of his wife’s assets ‑ land, tractors and a house ‑ reaching US5 000 on his assets declaration. President Mujica spent the 1960s and 1970s as part of the Uruguayan guerrilla Tupamaros, a leftist armed group inspired by the Cuban revolution in the same way Sankara was spurred into action against oppression.

For the love of his country, he was shot six times and spent 14 years in jail. Most of his detention was spent in harsh conditions and isolation, until he was freed in 1985 when Uruguay returned to democracy.

Those years in jail, Mujica says, helped shape his outlook on life.

In the documentary, President Mujica said he was not “poor” despite being classified as such and slammed wealth accumulation.

“I’m called ‘the poorest President’, but I don’t feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more,” he said.

“This is a matter of freedom. If you don’t have many possessions then you don’t need to work all your life like a slave to sustain them, and therefore you have more time for yourself.” The Uruguayan leader made a similar point when he addressed the Rio+20 summit in June this year: “We’ve been talking all afternoon about sustainable development. To get the masses out of poverty.

“But what are we thinking? Do we want the model of development and consumption of the rich countries?

“I ask you now: what would happen to this planet if Indians would have the same proportion of cars per household than Germans? How much oxygen would we have left?

“Does this planet have enough resources so seven or eight billion can have the same level of consumption and waste that today is seen in rich societies? It is this level of hyper-consumption that is harming our planet.”

He accused most world leaders of having a “blind obsession to achieve growth with consumption, as if the contrary would mean the end of the world”.

Thirst for Wealth

Given the financial turmoil that has affected most of the Western world, the perspectives raised by President Mujica are of interest.

Most of Europe has adopted austerity measures ‑ albeit very unpopular among their populations ‑ due to overspending over the years.

Political analyst at Midlands State University in Zimbabwe, Dr Nhamo Mhiripiri, says the thirst for wealth and a culture of consumerism have been the sole cause of the problems in Western Europe and agrees with President Mujica that a paradigm shift was needed to address the world’s economic problems.

“Basically, what he is saying is that people should live within their means and, work hard and shun the high life that is promoted by Western conglomerates.

“The unfortunate thing is that while this is true it might, however, be unpopular among many people while the powerful transnational corporations that are driven by the profit making desire will always fight to ensure that people make more.

“His ideas are the same that drove Sankara but unfortunately he was assassinated when he had not yet achieved his goals completely,” he says. Dr Mhiripiri believes all leaders, especially in Africa, should take a leaf from the examples of the two (Sankara and Mujica) on how to utilise their nations’ resources better.

“It is also important that African leaders look themselves in the mirror and prioritise their spending.

“The problem we have had is the emergence of a petty bourgeoisie among African ruling elites and this has tended to alienate them from the aspirations of the majority.

“Subsequently, this has caused social upheavals and strife that we have always witnessed over the year as people clamour for a bigger share of the national cake,” he says.

Sankara had a great idea for Africa; Mujica has shown that it is an idea that can work. Africa must learn the lesson.

Farirai Machivenyika

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