African’s & our obsession with old ‘wise’ men

Yesterday I had a very heated discussion around polygamy & the nature of choice, with a friend of mine; who is an old man. Over the course of our discussion, he angrily claimed that that the fact he was many decades older than me and had been married for longer than me, automatically made him correct.

I found this response lazy at best, but at worst, dangerous.

This week the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) summoned Joseph Mloyie; a police officer to stand trial in court for allegedly saying former president Robert Mugabe was “too old” to rule. He was 92 at the time.

In November last year, he was forced to resign at 93 after almost 40 years in power. The notion that old men make better leaders has been pervasive in Africa since pre-colonial times.

Africans and old men; a historical perspective

The African obsession with old men dates back to pre-colonial societies, where decisions were made by elders (old men). The older a person was, the greater their decision making capabilities were thought to be. Meanwhile, the West had developed far more complex systems of government which spurred greater levels of development and the evolution of capitalism.

Virtual Kollage

Historically, African’s seemed to believe that old age and wisdom/ability to govern were directly proportional. Perhaps in pre-colonial days it made sense as wisdom was passed on through stories. Perhaps old men still have the most stories. However, today there are more effective ways to ascertain a leaders aptitude and ability. So why do African young people continue to choose age, often at the expense of common sense?

African leaders today

Many people who think they have 20 years of experience really don’t. They have one year of experience repeated 20 times (Pfeffer)

Analyst Stephanie Wolters, head of the peace and security research program at the Pretoria, South Africa Institute for Security Studies says ‘the kinds of political parties that we have in Africa, are still very much centered on individuals, leaders that have been around for a very, very long time’ instead of on individuals with a track record of success.

What African young people should do?

I have no doubt that there many, many old men that are very smart, capable, competent and interested in the future of Africa. Young people must engage them and learn from them.

Nelson Mandela unarguably was one of Africa’s greatest leaders. And he was inaugurated as South Africa’s president at the age of 77; very much an old man.

But we must also start believing that there are instances that require young people to lead old men. Not solely because they are young, but because they are more competent. I see nothing wrong with a 30 year old minister, hiring a 57 year old special assistant. However, this is unheard of, in many African countries.

Young Africans don’t have a knowledge problem or an experience problem. We have a branding problem.

This branding problem is perpetrated by the often unmerited deference given to old men culturally, solely by virtue of their age.

At 31 years old, Sebastian Kurz is the world’s youngest leader.. Despite his young age, he already has significant political experience.

The old man I referenced at the beginning of this article, tried to silence me, using advanced age as a weapon. Have African young people been silenced by old men also?

Many times experts fail, because they’re experts in the past version of the world

The days of elders telling stories by the fireside in the bush are gone. Now we learn and achieve excellence much earlier in life through social media, advanced technical skills, fellowships, civic activity and online education.

The world has moved on from fire side stories to AI, big data & advanced analytics. African leaders and voting citizens must move on also.

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