Achebe’s A Man of the People: A Prophetic Critique of ANC Presidents, Especially Ramaphosa?
By Katlego Mereko
“As I stood in one corner of that vast tumult waiting for the arrival of the Minister, I felt intense bitterness welling up in my mouth. Here were silly, ignorant villagers dancing themselves lame and waiting to blow off their gunpowder in honour of one of those who had started the country off down the slopes of inflation. I wished for a miracle, for a voice of thunder, to hush this ridiculous festival and tell the poor contemptible people one or two truths. But of course, it would be quite useless. They were not only ignorant but cynical. Tell them that this man had used his position to enrich himself and they would ask you---as my father did---if you thought that a sensible man would spit out the juicy morsel that good fortune placed in his mouth.”
The narrator’s obviously frustration-laden charge aside, the setting of the above paragraph describes an event around a character in Chinua Achebe’s classic A Man of the People, the story’s protagonist, the Chief the Honourable M.A Nanga, M.P... His arrival at Anata Grammar School to give a talk inspires clamour among the villagers who danced “themselves lame and waiting to blow off their gunpowder in honour of one of those who had started the country off down the slopes of inflation.”
Odili, the narrator, knows his community well, and knows that the man’s possible ethical transgressions would only invite a proverbial response from the villagers; would a sensible man spit out the juicy morsel that good fortune placed in his mouth? The novel, written in a participant first-person narrator style, is essentially a critique of post-Independence African political leadership around the 60s.
South Africa was a late-comer in any attempt at a break from colonial powers following the farce in 1961 when under apartheid rule and beset by pressures of political decolonisation, it became a republic and pulled out of the commonwealth – a policy adoption the current author describes elsewhere as an ideological and symbolic return for Afrikaner Nationalists to Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek of 1852.
It is only in the 90s that the country could enjoy the rhetoric of a “Post-Apartheid” South Africa after the first democratic elections of 1994 saw the country’s first indigenous president elected in the form of the now late struggle icon Nelson Mandela. Fast forwards 25 years, newly elected President Cyril Ramaphosa invites tempting comparisons with A Man of the People’s Chief The Honourable M.A Nanga M.P.
It could indeed be argued that there is a Chief The Honourable M.A Nanga M.P. in each one of the elected presidents from 1994, including Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, but the present writer would argue that Ramaphosa may just represent the better fit, thanks especially to his role in the CODESA negotiations and the drafting of the Constitution in the 90s.
Outside the feverish excitement around Ramaphosa’s dawn as president, which has seen highly publicised morning walks among other performative acts to earn the name “Ramaphoria”, being strikingly similar to Chief The Honourable M.A Nanga M.P.’s reception at Anata Grammar School, the current State President is never far from accusations of ethical misgivings just like the protagonist in Achebe’s clairvoyant contribution to African Literature.
But like the people of Anata, these reported incidents of any unethical role Ramaphosa may have played in South Africa’s sorry affairs, whether it is his part in the CODESA negotiations (of concessions), implications in the Guptagate or a possible role in the Marikana massacre seem to be neither here nor there for the majority of voters in South Africa. Ramaphosa has established himself as a new man of the people. Something between Mbeki’s stoic intellectualism and Zuma’s overzealous charisma, he inspires feelings of security for many liberal white South Africans and somehow still manages to charm the indigenous population into continued loyalty for the ANC, despite its glaring failures in varied aspects of facilitating historical redress and justice.
Perhaps the voting indigenous people’s population also hold the same view as the Anata people that Ramaphosa’s election as president is the juicy morsel that good fortune has placed in his mouth to his justified enjoyment. It is indeed not strange to hear a common conversation in the streets that the issue is not that politicians loot state coffers or are involved in illegal lucrative deals, it is rather that they do it too much (to the extent of being caught).
Ironically, the people of Anata have a proverb that the South African voting community do not seem to be equally sensitised to in this regard.
“I thought much afterward about that proverb, about the man taking things away until the owner at last notices. In the mouth of our people, there was no greater condemnation. It was not just a simple question of a man's cup being full. A man's cup might be full, and none be the wiser. But here the owner knew, and the owner, I discovered, is the will of the whole people,”
(Odili, Chapter 9).
Without simply regurgitating similar sentiments to the litany of reviews for the book first published in 1966, the book solidified Achebe’s reputation as a versatile writer, with A Man of The People radically different from the likes of Things Fall Apart. Written from a participant first-person narrator point of view, it also represents a stylistic break from his world-class output in his third-person narration efforts.
Nonetheless, it still delivers as top echelon content. Outside the political themes, it is a story of amorous relations and their resultant consequences of betrayal and subsequent ill-feeling causing soured relations.
It reads like a conversation between oneself (the reader) and a roommate or acquaintance (the narrator Odili Samalu) upon the latter being frivolously asked:
“Hey Odili, Have you heard of that chap Chief The Honourable M.A. Nanga M.P.?”
The result is just over 100 pages worth of dramatic plot twists, sharp consistent humour, indigenous wisdom, contemporary philosophical insights and more that is sure to leave readers clutching their heads in awe; spellbound and dumbfounded by the literary genius of the father of African Literature.