Catholic Social Teaching Corner: What if George Washington Were a Saint?

December 11, 2012

East Africa’s Peaceful Revolutionary, Julius Nyerere

Welcoming President Julius Nyerere to the White House lawn in a splendid and colorful ceremony in 1963, President John F. Kennedy compared the Tanzanian leader to the two U.S. presidents whose monuments the scene overlooked, Washington and Jefferson. It was no hyperbole, as Nyerere, who died in 1999, is still regarded with veneration in his native land, known by the titles “Father of the Nation” and “Mwalimu”, the Swahili word for teacher. What distinguishes him from any number of anti-colonial agitators over the centuries is that he may also have been a saint. Nyerere’s cause of beatification was introduced in 2005.

Julius Nyerere
Julius Nyerere was born in 1922 in what was then the British colony of Tanganyika. He started formal schooling at age 12, having to walk 26 miles round trip each day. Eventually he would attain a masters degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1952, amazingly becoming only the second from his country to acquire a university degree abroad. Starting as a teacher back home, his principles led him to public life. His fame as a statesman arose from his career as Tanganyika’s first independent prime minister, a role which evolved into the presidency of Tanzania after a unification of Tanganyika with Zanzibar in 1964. His reputation for holiness arose from his utter sincerity of purpose.   Political holiness for Nyerere meant first of all a peaceful transition to independence. The British handover in 1961 was truly an example of the meek inheriting the earth, of the lowly being lifted up. His legacy is evident today in the stability and relative harmony of his nation, remarkable amidst the travails of the region. While other African leaders enriched themselves, there was never the slightest whiff of corruption around Nyerere. Rather he fasted regularly and attended Mass daily. And even though his presidency lasted twenty-one years, tellingly he is the first head of state in post-colonial Africa to relinquish office voluntarily. Once he did so, he never interfered with his successors, even when they radically departed from some of his policies. The most controversial aspect of his legacy was his economic policy. His socialistic scheme advanced a voluntary rural collectivism called Ujamaa, meaning brotherhood or solidarity. He thought this system would fit naturally with the African village structure of extended families, and he was suspicious of the corrupting influence of capitalism. However his venture is almost universally regarded to have failed. To his credit, he never imposed Ujamaa with the oppressive force that marked other economic innovations of the twentieth century, and he left office when he saw a change was needed. His ideas may seem heretical, but they had more in common with the agrarian and distributist philosophy of many English Catholic thinkers of the early twentieth century than with Marx.
Julius Nyerere with Bl. Pope John Paul II
Every saint reveals something. They show us how human beings are meant to be and what society is meant to be like. If Nyerere was a saint, what he revealed is what politics and politicians should be all about. Politics, as our Lord indicated, should be about service, not about making one’s authority felt. Mwalimu made human dignity, not ideology, the center of his approach. And politicians, although they must be courageous and even forceful at times, should be humble. It seems a rare and improbable virtue among great leaders, but he embodied it. His focus was his country, his continent and the world – never himself. If Julius Nyerere is ever canonized, Tanzania will be privileged to have its George Washington raised to the altars, and all nations will be blessed to have an example of true statesmanship in the modern world.  

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