Interview with Dick Wathika: 'Racism hampers development.'
in SHSviews 17
From the urgent need to halt the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa, through empowerment of women, to fostering economic and social development in Africa, the Mayor of Nairobi, Kenya, reveals to SHS Views his observations on the struggle of the brand new African Coalition of Cities against Racism and Discrimination.
Launched in September 2006, the African Coalition of Cities against Racism and Discrimination designated not one, but four “lead cities” to spearhead the Coalition’s endeavours across the continent: Nairobi for East Africa, Bamako for West Africa, Durban for Southern Africa and Kigali for Central Africa. Why?
Specific kinds of discriminatory attitudes are rooted in history and influenced by the general social background that characterizes a particular region. The division of responsibility for leadership in the fight against discrimination among these four African cities was based precisely on that consideration. Later, we also decided to give the city of Cotonou in Central Africa, a leadership role. So there are now five “lead cities” that have taken on the commitment to be at the forefront of the fight against discrimination and racism in Africa.
For instance, I noticed in Nairobi that one of the main problems is discrimination with regard to primary schoolchildren of certain religious affiliations. Many private schools only admit Catholics, some only take Protestants, and others only accept Muslims and Hindus. That kind of policy creates undesirable divisions in the life of the city and its young residents, inhibiting their ability to grow together as one community. The income-based negative prejudice is another hurdle that has to be overcome if we are to build lasting solidarity among the inhabitants of our cities. For example, in Kenya, a hotel can easily deny its services to a native person who does not meet the stereotype of a certain income status.
Other problems transcend city, country and regional boundaries. One such major challenge that we all face in Africa is HIV and AIDS. Even though the epidemic has profoundly affected all our societies, it remains cloaked in silence. People living with HIV and AIDS have to endure prejudice born out of ignorance and fear. This increases the vulnerability of everyone to HIV infection, since people infected with and affected by HIV avoid contacting health and social services for a diagnosis, for information, education or counselling. Breaking the silence and putting an end to the stigma surrounding this disease have become an integral part of the fight against the epidemic. In the Coalition, we regard it as our major mission.
The principles of human dignity and equality have been enshrined in various legal instruments that place primary responsibility for promoting these principles with the signatory countries. So why is there a Coalition of Cities?
Why cities? Because the municipal authorities are grassroots leaders who interact with the local population on a daily basis. Our Coalition intends to start by bringing together major cities and later expand the network to include smaller municipalities, towns and urban centres. Local government leaders of these communities know better than the national authorities when and how people are discriminated against, and what means are available to protect the rights of their fellow citizens. Why the coalition? Because problems can be immense when you are dealing with them on your own. But if you unite with your neighbours who also face the same issues, and seek solutions together, then your mutual capacity grows and the problems become manageable. In the context of the global village, the Coalition is striving to share experiences through close and effective cooperation, to bring best practices on board, and collectively tackle the problems that would be overwhelming for each individual member alone.
Solidarity, tolerance and multiculturalism represent intrinsically positive values. Do you think that these principles can contribute to solving other pressing issues such as achieving sustainable development or regional integration in Africa?
Most definitely, and primarily because they promote social cohesion. Collective economic development in any society is a product of individual action and motivation. When citizens feel they are accorded the same degree of protection from discrimination, and therefore enjoy equal opportunities under the law, they have the incentive to cooperate and contribute to the development of the community. But when citizens are marginalized into groups that are discriminated against on the basis of race, nationality, gender or state of health, it inhibits their ability to be full members of society and contribute to its development.
In the context of pervasive discrimination, the fear of xenophobia and violence prevents people from investing optimally and exploring commercial possibilities in regions other than their own. The aim of our Coalition is therefore to promote economic development and regional integration by helping societies to open up, and promoting tolerance and peaceful coexistence.
Women represent a major population group that is nonetheless subject to many forms of discrimination that range from structural inequality to open violence. Do you think that your initiative will benefit the struggle of African women to achieve gender equality?
In many African societies women lack the means to take part in important decision-making processes and have a limited voice in shaping their development. The responsibility for women’s development traditionally rests with men. This state of affairs is largely a product of our socialization which, unfortunately, discriminates heavily against women, assigning them a place and a status in society inferior to that of men. And yet, when women are structurally barred from fully realizing their potential, the whole of society suffers.
The Coalition will endeavour to open up African societies to allow general discussion and increased awareness about the societal benefits of women’s empowerment and gender equality. I think that the greatest contribution to promoting gender equality through our Coalition will be by changing the way children are socialized, hitting the source of discrimination at its very root.
Will African cities have the sustained political will to strengthen and expand the existing Coalition?
Yes, the political will is here to stay. In today’s world, thanks to modern information and communication technologies, the Coalition can be very effective in empowering people to demand the fulfilment of their rights. In an environment where citizens know their rights, politicians aspiring to assume any elected position will be under pressure to demonstrate to their constituencies a superior record of fighting for the protection of human rights in their communities. We will see the issues of racism and discrimination enter the mainstream of political debate and become a benchmark for leadership.
Interview by Irakli Khodeli
Dick Mwangi Wathika
An accountant by training, Dick Mwangi Wathika became Mayor of Nairobi in July 2004 and in 2006 was re-elected for a second term, which runs through to the end of 2007. He has played an active management role in the Kenyan capital ever since his election in 1992 as Councillor for Maringo Ward, and has chaired several of the Nairobi City Council Commissions, notably Audit (1998), Water and Drainage (1999), Planning (2000) and Finance (2001).