The election campaign narrative of “helping the poor, the small person, mama mboga” is very patronising, to say the least.
From MCAs to presidential candidates, this saviour mentality runs awkwardly deep in the electioneering campaigns. Somehow, we have normalised the belief that a good elected leader is one who talks about the poor and how “they have been marginalised, neglected” often by the very people who have generated marginalisation and neglect narratives.
Every time political candidates spew “helping the small people” phrase analysts will see how they (politicians) muse in self-importance. The attitude towards “helping the small people” carries with it a saviour mentality, much like the way the colonisers came to “save the poor Africans.” It does not help matters when our politicians go an extra mile to create pity for the so-called small people. Let us concretise this.
First, a majority of public rally attendants are poor people who find rallies dramatic and therefore good entertainment. It is the kind of crowd that will be told how they will be saved from poverty with dependency-promises and cheer wildly. Secondly, political rallies are characterised by crowds for hire. They shout more, dance more, dramatise more than any other attendants present. Third, many speeches depict the poor as captives who need a liberator. The crowd is therefore meant to feel self-pity and gaze at the “messiah speaking to us” with love and commitment.
Indeed, the poor should be supported to enjoy meaningful livelihoods. However, the strategies used ought to be humanising. The narrative pelted out on helping the poor is dehumanising. The reason is that it creates the fortunate and the unfortunate classes in society. It creates good guys and bad chaps. It sets up bad guys against good guys. It generates a system of governance with a general who, apparently, fights for the small people.
The truth is the narrative of helping small people sounds morally right. In fact, any conscientious person needs to help the poor. Far from this, the political candidates understanding of helping the poor is very different from moral obligation to support the poor. For our candidates, helping the poor is a bait. It is a strategy of creating helplessness in order to turn it into votes.
There is no doubt whatsoever that we have had some extremely dedicated politicians towards poverty eradication. These are not many though. Very few indeed. A majority of our candidates for elective positions, as we see in the ongoing campaigns, are self-seekers pandering to populist narratives for nothing beyond getting votes.
Serious candidates talk about creating an enabling environment for “the poor, mama mboga, small person” to lift themselves out of poverty. All developmental agencies concur that poor people have the capacity to transform their conditions for the better. What they lack are systems that deliver. They lack leaders who focus on ensuring the government delivers quality service. The poor are looking for leaders who do not come around as “fellow poor” but as leaders motivated to get power in order to eradicate dependency.
In fact, governments should never function like charity organisations. Listening to candidates in the media, one gets a sense that government is for the fortunate. Moreover, the photo sessions with the poor during election campaigns turn the whole process into a messianic process. No government exists to offer charity except in failed States. Governments exist to protect people and create a conducive environment in which citizens, especially in a devolved system like ours, collectively and singularly explore opportunities for their growth.
The poor do not need tokenism. They do not need rich people pretending to be poor. It is okay to be rich and seek power. There is no such a thing as “a small person.” Every human being has dignity to respect. As a country, we have matured to go beyond words and act humanely. We enjoy relative peace, which is sufficient to engage in political processes that are less dramatic and more pragmatic.
The writer is Executive Director, Loyola Centre for Media and Communication.