At age 33, Thomas Jefferson crafted the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. This document is the foundation of the American democracy and has been since July 4th 1776, when America declared its independence from the British. In its entirety the Declaration, is profound but what resonates with many people is where it provides that;
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
In these words, Jefferson declared four key elements that make up a democratic state; equality of all human beings; universal and inalienable human rights, people-centred political power in which governments derive their legitimacy from the people; and the ability of citizens to instate, reinstate or depose governments.
These elements both guide and inspire global civic leaders on a daily basis; fostering discussions around equality of all races, sexes, nations; civil, political, environmental, and socio-cultural rights; citizen voice and participation as well as full representation in choosing leaders and demanding accountability through designated processes such as the electoral process.
The freedoms and rights espoused in the Declaration when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, only applied to a third of the population- they did not apply to blacks or to women- who were not considered citizens. In fact, the blacks were slaves, objects of the citizens of the state while women were perpetual minors- represented in the public sphere by their husbands or fathers. In my view, the historical account of Thomas Jefferson represents one of the greatest paradoxes of mankind. It is not easy to comprehend how the man whose beauty in thought process and enlightenment about the equality of all men was the same man who owned and built an empire and a whole university on slave labour.
However, the value of the Declaration of Independence can be traced in American history. In his famous Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln referred back to how the American fathers “…brought forth…a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Similarly, Elizabeth Stanton, was one of the pioneers of the women’s rights movement in America, who fought hard for women’s equal citizenship, including the right to vote. Where Jefferson said “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, Elizabeth stated that “all men and women were created equal” in her famous “Declaration of Sentiments.” Where previously the different states of the US suffered under colonial rule, in her struggle the women suffered under the new governance structure.
Martin Luther King in his battle for civil rights for the black minority, gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, in which he said “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” At the moment of his speech, Dr King was fighting racial segregation with a view to attaining civil liberties for the black minority. However, progressive and critical analysis of the struggle made him realise that civil liberties alone would not change the economic status of the poor masses hence the shift in his focus from civil liberties to human rights. Many believe this radical shift was the reason for his assassination.
Looking at these milestones, I recognise that the Declaration shaped the history of the American nation at every turn. It brought enlightenment and gave rights to those who previously never had them. But at each turn, it took the agitation of a sector of society, dissatisfied with the status quo to bring about change.
I recognise, therefore, that freedom and dignity are never secured in a single period of time in history. They have to be fought for, each and every day, by present generations. As a civic leader, I recognise that the future of Zimbabwe-my country-depends on the citizenry. Whereas the history of my country shapes its current context and future, change, however can only be realised when Zimbabweans,’ especially youths,’ experience dissatisfaction with the status quo and have clarity around the new future they want to see. Only dissatisfied people seek a new future. When they have made the decision to seek a new future, they engage in dialogue to define how that future will look like and innovate to make it a reality. A pathway to change can only be clear when people are willing to be involved and are driven and dedicated to bring about change.
The demands made by American citizens on the basis of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, metamorphosised as American citizens’ mind-sets, values and demands transformed with time. Dissatisfaction with the status quo also brought Americans to envision a future without war, gender discrimination or racial discrimination in every historical time.
Similarly, young people in Zimbabwe must hunger for, visualise and work individually and collectively towards a transformed society that treats all citizens equally, respects human rights, and is governed by leaders who serve the best interests of those they govern; a government for, by and of the people.
There are currently high levels of youth apathy, with a 24.3 % voter registration rate in the 2013 election amongst youths aged 18-30 compared to the 100% registration rate amongst elders aged 45 and above. The commitment of young people to raise their voice in governance processes is questionable. Hope lies in pockets of youth who are agitating for rights, accountability and transparency in Zimbabwe. Together, we are transforming business and finance sectors, the arts industry, the media, the legal field, the medical profession and other critical sectors in Zimbabwean society. We are seizing the opportunity to transform our society even when the conditions are hostile. Someday-something will give; and as Louise Pasteur states, “Chance favours the prepared mind.”