Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Other Political System

A rallying cry of the white elite at the time of the change of government in South Africa was “We’ll go the same way as Zimbabwe.” Sometimes it was extended more broadly to: “We’ll go the same way as the rest of Africa.” This always meant black Africa; no one expected South Africa to become an oil-rich Arab state. When the African National Congress government took power, we were told that the South African Rand was a “one-way bet” and it collapsed over a few years to R20 to the US$. There was no reason for this. The country’s fiscal management was better than before and, when Trevor Manuel took over as our finance minister, we had one of the best financial management systems anywhere. The currency is now just over R7 to the US$ and all the moaning is about how overvalued it is, and how bad that is for exports. The people who rushed to get their money out of the country at R20 to the dollar on their “one-way bet” don’t talk about it much anymore.

Now people ponder why we didn’t go the same way as Zimbabwe. I think a more interesting question in why Zimbabwe went the way of Zimbabwe. Let’s examine the country's intrinsic “problems”.

Take natural resources. Zimbabwe is regarded by the mining industry as one of the most prospective countries in Africa. The Great Dyke runs through the country, a tectonic feature which hosts a variety of mineral wealth. Even in the darkest Mugabe days, South African mining companies where snapping up prospects in this area with its stunning platinum, gold and chromium wealth. They knew they were probably throwing away their money, but the odds were high enough to make it worth a flutter.

Maybe the environment makes food a problem? Surely this is behind the land-grabs and expulsion of white farmers? Hardly. Zimbabwe has some of the most fertile soil in southern Africa. Water is reasonably plentiful, and in its heyday the country easily supported itself. In addition, export cash crops included tobacco, coffee, beef.

Well, perhaps the people are debilitated by the climate or disease? Certainly AIDS and malaria are challenges. Now cholera has been added to those. It gets hot, but so do a lot of successful parts of the world. What’s more the people are (or were) very well-educated. They were exposed to the British school system of the day, learned in English, and were expected to meet high standards. (By contrast in South Africa during the apartheid days, children had to suffer the weak and insulting “bantu education” system. Let’s not even go there.)

Then there’s tourism. The country has wonderful wildlife areas, superb natural attractions like the Victoria Falls and Great Zimbabwe, excellent hotels, and friendly people.

How good can it get? Zimbabwe is the “lucky country” of Africa.

By now, if you are still reading, you will be thinking: “What’s he on about? We all know what the problem is. It’s Mugabe. Get rid of him. That’s the answer.” Well, I’m not so sure about that. Yes, of course, Mugabe is a greedy despot who has beggared his people and ruined his country. But he has a clique of henchmen, and they haven’t yet managed to amass the sickening wealth that he’s accumulated. Getting rid of Mugabe – say by a coup or an assassination – is likely just to open the door for someone equally greedy. It’s the political system that has to change, not only the person leading it.

The world is full of –isms, -ships, -archies, and -ocracies. But there’s another system – and it is a system – which can co-exists with any one of these. But it’s a parasite, and it eats away from the top down. It’s only a matter of time. It'scalled corruption.

Corruption is everywhere in every country (take a look at certain financial institutions in the US), but the country collapses when it becomes the governing system. Many African (and other countries in the world) have disintegrated because of it. Illegal self-enrichment is a system that almost inevitably leads to collapse. It’s a pyramid scheme, but with the added feature that the people at the bottom of the pyramid have no way to stop paying while having no hope of being paid themselves. Services fail because there is no personal payment to keep them going. Salaries are replaced with other more meaningful and lucrative sources of income. Reporting from a trip to Ghana earlier this week, another mystery-writer (Kwei Quartey who will be writing a guest blog for us on Saturday) told of a horrendous road accident. The police arrived an hour later, gave a cursory look around, and left. After all, they couldn’t see any way of making money from the event.

As a political system, corruption always starts at the top and rapidly works its way down until it reaches the base of the pyramid. It has to be rejected at the top, and fought from the top down.

There is a story doing the rounds about the president of Botswana, Ian Kharma, son of the beloved first president of the country, Sir Seretse Kharma. There were severe complaints about service at one of the public hospitals. Patients complained that they waited without being seen by doctors. They were rudely treated. The hospital superintendent denied all this. It was just that his staff were overworked, he said, and patients had unreasonable expectations of a public hospital. And that was supposed to be the end of it. The story goes that President Kharma disguised himself as a poor man and went to the hospital seeking treatment. He received exactly the sort of off- hand and discourteous treatment that had been described to him. Without being seen by a doctor, he left, returned to his residence, and fired all the senior staff of the hospital. Maybe the story is apocryphal. Kharma has a military background and there are mutterings about his leadership style. The point is that people tell the story.

Botswana has many challenges to face now that the diamond income has all but dried up. A political system that rejects corruption will be a good place to start.

Michael – Thursday.


  1. Was TerraBlanche a name the white supremecist took as a statement of his politics or was it his birth name, a sign that he was destined to rid the world of those who weren't also white?

    The hysteria on the political right in the US is the manifestation of the fear and anger of people whose rage isn't directed against Obama's policies but is directed against the man.

    The white middle class is disappearing, a fact soon to be shown in the census being taken this year. It will not be long before the US does not have a white majority. Hispanics will be the majority group and it isn't because they are coming in illegally. Hispanic families increase in numbers in the normal way - they have children.

    The hate-mongers on the right direct their virulence toward the man in the Oval Office. Obama is everything they fear and envy.

    White supremacists believe they are intrinsically better because of their skin color. How then is it possible that a black man is the leader of the free world? They have to attack the man and everything he stands for so that his failure puts the sun back in the sky where it belongs.

    When the mainstream television networks announced that Obama had won the election, professional news people and millions across the country cried because his win proved we, as a nation, are better than we thought we were. In less than 50 years the US went from riots against registering blacks to vote to electing a black to govern the country.

    Racism problem solved for the US? Hardly. One of the two major political parties in the United States has not once in 15 months voted for anything that Obama has sent to Congress. These people would rather see this country fail than acknowledge that he has the right to lead.

    A political system that rejects corruption is as likely as a society that rejects racism.


  2. Fair comment, Beth. My point is that corruption BECOMES the political system, not that any system is entirely free of it. And when that happens, there is an inevitable collapse.
    The name is his original one. Wikipedia tells us:
    The progenitor of the Terre'Blanche name (translatable as either 'white land' or 'white earth' in French) in the region was a French Huguenot refugee named Estienne Terreblanche from Toulon (Provence), who arrived at the Cape in 1704.

  3. I know this is late, but I want to put in a word -- not entirely tongue-in-cheek -- in support of corruption.

    I live part-time in several very corrupt countries and visit many others. (Asia is not exactly unfamiliar with corruption.) The problem is that often corruption provides the structure for a country that otherwise might be ungovernable. Cambodia is a case in point -- following the chaos of the Khmer Rouge every institution in the nation had been shattered, people were terrified of their own shadows, and the road seemed to lead to more chaos. But the scent of money brought some natural leaders to the fore, even if they're not photogenic (Hun Sen, anyone?) and they managed to establish a relatively orderly society in which few people starve, even if a much smaller few are obscenely rich.

    And next door, in Thailand, we're seeing another stage of corrupt government, which is public demand for more participation. This is almost inevitable IN A LITERATE COUNTRY (caps entirely intentional) and almost always results in -- if not an end to corruption -- a spreading of the spoils.

    So I disagree that there's an inevitable collapse. I think often there's an evolutionary development into a more satisfactory form of government. But citizen literacy is, I think, a prerequisite, which is perhaps one reason (of many) for the ongoing tragedy of Africa. The Mugabes of the world aren't spending effort or bucks on teaching people to read, and they've got good reason.