Recently the radio startled me out of my amnesia. Tell me, old citizens of the world, does the name “Lech” ring a bell? Most probably not. Yet, if I mentioned “Nelson”, any ten-year old kid would shout: “You mean Mandela?” Interestingly, the two men brought about transformations that were unthinkable in the societies of their time.
If I say: “Bushy-beard rebel Fidel”, you’ll exclaim: “Castro, of course!” “Black-beard Samora” will immediately recall late Samora Machel. Unlike Castro, however, this will perhaps not be recognised beyond Africa. But mention Abraham Lincoln and anybody will recognise the one-time US president. Which wouldn’t be true for Richard Nixon. “Iron Mag”? UK’s Margaret Thatcher, of course!
Anyway, Lech. The burly man near the North Pole with a walrus moustache? Yes, now that I said it, you remember. Lech Walesa (read: lex vawesa). Remember how the man rose from obscurity to capture our imagination, distant oceans apart as we were. And, by all stretches, the 1980/90s are not eons away.
To us, Neanderthals, at least, it’s only the other day. Yet we’ve forgotten his name, even as he riveted our world like only few could.
That he did was surprising, considering that he was a simple electrician. Not your kind of genius, either, taken up by an eccentric’s fervour of descending to the low rungs of the simple folk of his country. A simple electrician working mostly in shipyards in communist Poland. It was from the Lenin Shipyards at Gdansk that Walesa began to pierce through the thick fog of world inattentiveness.
After becoming a trade-union activist, he met the full force of the Polish communist government in the 1970s. He was placed under surveillance, then fired in 1976, and then arrested several times. Still, he was not daunted and his activism spread to other workers’ unions in the country. But, for a communist party that claimed its legitimacy from the banner of working for workers’ interests, this was anathema to the whole communist world. A powerful world.
In Moscow, headquarters of this world, the foundations of Communism were rocked. What followed were heightened suppression efforts, involving even deaths, but they seemed rather to embolden Walesa. He became an activist of the underground Free Trade Unions of the Coast. One time he scaled the shipyard fence and, once inside, worked to become one of the strike leaders. From there, the resurgent strike committee legalised itself and chose Walesa as its chairman.
And it was after that, during the unfurling of the 1980s, that we began to see Walesa’s walrus-moustachioed face. We began to hear his name on all radio waves and his face started to become a kind of a frequent fixture on newspaper pages and TV screens.
Peasant Lech Walesa was set against Poland’s president, the diminutive General Wojciech Jaruzelski, a kind of wizened, frail and delicate-featured figure of royalty that always distantly hid behind dark glasses.
To us, this was the perfect drama of a virtuous peasant hero versus a wicked aristocratic villain. In the arena of world opinion, Walesa was president and General Jaruzelski was an outcast. But, of course, this was only in the imagination of the world.
Nonetheless, even in reality the Jaruzelski regime became increasingly unpopular. Economic conditions were worsening by the day. Eventually, the government was forced to negotiate with Walesa and his Solidarity colleagues. The result was parliamentary elections and a non-communist government. The Soviet Union now under Mikhail Gorbachev was not prepared to use military force to keep communist parties in satellite states in power.
In April 1990, at Solidarity’s second national congress, Walesa was elected chairman with 77.5% of the votes. In December 1990 in a general ballot, he was elected President of the Republic of Poland. He served until defeated in the election of November 1995.
But by then we’d forgotten him. The moment he ceased to lead the Solidarity Movement, we ceased to see any excitement in him. With the fall of the Communist Block, our attention went wandering to other controversial issues. We went, as nomads would, in search of more exciting trouble-spots.
So, today when we hear “Lech”, we yawn and exhale a “Who?” He got the sap of his life from his association with the Solidarity Movement. There was no life after the Movement. His lacklustre government was not possessed of any exciting feature. He is there, we know, and we are happy, but our attention has gone a-wandering.
How do some leaders manage to maintain world attention in their grip for life, as if in a vice?
(There are villains whom the world never tires of, of course, but these are not in our interest.)
The world hungers for change that offers a constant good. Change must be for a transformational good. And transformation must be lasting, without lasting. It must not last. And our change must be change that puts hope within reach. Constantly and for good. The world hungers for beacons of such change, who always inspire hope.
Lech Walesa came the far he did but could not go further. Still, that was far and, in all fairness, we must sing his praise. Still, in Rwanda we should not be happy with any limit. Our motto should be: From hope to hope!