Welcome to the first of what I hope will be many months spent sharing the airways with you in this column. I hope to reflect on many topics during this time, share some of my thoughts and feelings on popular news events, shape local as well as global opinions and, hopefully, stop navel-gazing for long enough to elicit a chuckle or two as I cover less serious topics from time to time.
As we celebrate 33 years of independence this month – a period marked by peaceful handovers of power and no president wanting to overstay his welcome – I am reminded of an incident that happened earlier this year that seemed to set the world reeling. I am speaking about New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s decision to step down before completing her term in office. The announcement attracted various opinions, but for many social media users in Africa there seemed to be one main reaction: “People in power actually step down voluntarily!”
While I understand the reaction – after all, Equatorial Guinea’s president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo is currently the world’s longest serving head of state, having been in power for 43 years, and Paul Biya, the world’s oldest head of state at 89, has ruled Cameroon for 40 years – it is not necessarily fair. Cambodia’s Hun Sen has been prime minister for 37 years, Tajikistan’s Emomali Rakhmon has led the country for 30 years, and Vladmir Putin has been the President of Russia for 19 years, and actually in charge for 23 if you count the years Dmitry Medvedev was (many say in name only) the head of state. Sure, the situation is different, but even Angela Merkel served as German chancellor for 16 years and 16 days – a mere 10 days less than Helmut Kohl’s record run.
Speaking of double standards, many also chose to use Ardern’s decision to (once again) take a dig at women in power, saying it was proof that they do not have what it takes. Even the BBC published an article that was originally titled “Jacinda Ardern resigns: Can women really have it all?” before they changed it following a backlash and accusations of “staggering sexism”.
Of course the argument has also been made that it was those double standards that contributed to her decision to leave in the first place, ranging from comments in the media about her looks and fashion sense, to criticism of her living arrangements and the fact that she took her then three-month-old daughter with her to the United Nations General Assembly. She also had to face many questions which male prime ministers would never be expected to answer, such as whether she and Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin had met because they were “similar in age” and had a lot in common, or whether or not she dyed her hair, as well as, of course, what her “real reason” for resigning was.
New Zealand’s third female prime minister’s decision to leave before completing her tenure also attracted praise, though, with many highlighting “her strength, compassion and empathy”, the fact that she had shown that “a new style of leadership” was possible, and had “made kindness cool again”. She was also applauded by some for her honesty in admitting to the “toll of overwork that comes with the responsibility of running a country” and for potentially making “burnout ‘high-profile’ enough for leaders to act” – whether or not they, and we, will is of course up for debate.
Reshma Saujani, the founder and CEO of Moms First and the founder of Girls Who Code, said she hoped that Ardern’s resignation and honesty about the reasons for it would inspire women to stop seeing “their own empty tanks as flaws”. “Like Ardern,” Saujani says, “we must recognise the moments when we personally need support, while continuing to advocate for larger, structural support for families across the globe.”
This is what I hope the world can take away from Jacinda Ardern’s resignation: the realisation that in order to be of service and assistance to others we all need to “fill our own cups first”, the ability to admit when we need help and the bravery to ask for it, as well as the understanding that we too need to step away sometimes, even if it is only for a little while and not forever.
Until next month; enjoy your journey.