What is democracy, but the equal say of all citizens in the decisions that affect their lives. In some countries in the world, this right is denied, and as an African diasporan of the young republic of Zimbabwe, I avidly study the practice of democracy both at home and in the city in which I now live, London. The drama unravelling at the Africa Centre reveals a Council that is not cognizant of the new leadership theories that create effective social change, that is:consulting stakeholders listening to and working with intended beneficiaries.
Citizenship thrives on the social contract of active participation in democracy. There are responsibilities that come with the right to benefit. After many years of discretely bewailing the demise of the Africa Centre with fellow-diasporans, the Council’s attempt to sell the Covent Garden building has spurred a campaign into action. The petitioners are a younger generation of Africans, who have not experienced the benefits of the building themselves, as the historic site has been dark for more than five years. But they know their history and what the site should represent, and they are coming together to stake their claim on their heritage and right to gather at 38 King Street.
But the petition of hundreds of Africans begging the board to hold a public consultation on the plans for the Africa Centre have been stonewalled. The request from the Africa Centre Members’ Association, calling for an Extraordinary General Meeting, has been flatly denied. Without the Members’ Association, some of whom are original founders of the charity and past Director-Generals, the charity’s governance structure provides no checks or balances. The Council is a self-selecting board with no nominations from the community. According to a constitution which has hardly been revised in fifty years, a quorum of only 3 out of 21 trustees listed on Charity Commission files only three trustees are required to agree sale of assets. If the Centre ran a successful programme, this issue would be secondary to the social capital they had developed by fulfilling their remit. Unfortunately, because the Council has failed to prioritize programming, the building on King Street is the only asset they have.
For Africans like myself who are not members of the Association or Council, it is frustrating to watch helplessly while recognizing the potential of 38 King Street and the opportunities that have been missed in our building. It is the same frustration I feel for citizens in countries where being a member of the ruling party is the only way to contribute to government. Although we, as Africans in the diaspora, have an emotional attachment to the building and its heritage – the site of ANC meetings, symposiums on Pan-Africanism, the first home of writers like Ben Okri, the gigging venue of Angelique Kidjo – and a vision of what it could be, we have no voice in the decisions being made. And we, the majority, are those who should be the beneficiaries of this charity.
Diverse young Africans have approached the Council with ideas for programmes, but one by one they have been turned away. Although the Council claims that their drive to sell the building is based on the need for, ‘Programmes not Property,’ for the past five years, the hall has been dark. And the little social capital that was maintained in its bar and restaurant has completely dissipated.
But behind the Save the Africa Centre campaign is a growing social movement of young Africans who want to keep their space in Covent Garden, and have their voice heard. Hilton Mandelson, the founder of WeZimbabwe joined the campaign saying, ‘The only people we have to blame for what has happened to the Africa Centre is ourselves. It is our responsibility, as Africans, to protect it. There should be Africa Centres in every major city in Britain. With what is going on in North Africa, or watching Ivory Coast struggle, the Africa Centre should be a rallying point for young Africans.’ And the campaign has become a rallying point for young Africans to engage.
So without an inclusive or democratic process the Council of the Africa Centre is selling its only asset. Neither an innovative programme of educational or cultural events, nor the social capital of vibrant membership or engaged beneficiaries act as balancing assets. When the 38 King Street building goes, the ethos and philosophy of the Africa Centre will go with it. And on the torn roots of our history in Britain, an up-market high-street store will be built. This is the state of democracy in our little Africa, in the heart of Covent Garden.Chipo Chung is a Chinese-Zimbabwean actress who trained at Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). She has worked extensively with appearances at the National Theatre, the Royal Court, and with Out of Joint’s national tours, and on television in Doctor Who and the upcoming series Camelot. She sits on the RADA Council and is a trustee of award-winning African arts for social change charity Sponsored Arts For Education (SAFE). She also sits on Equity’s International Committee for Artists’ Freedom.