Zimbabwe and the race to the bottom

Vince Musewe says all too often Africa's politicians have been able to master the art of deception

Zimbabwe: Beware of the ides of 2013 (Part 1): The common behavior of politicians is not restricted by diet, complexion, climate or geographical location

I have stumbled upon what I think are some fascinating thoughts on politics and sustainable social change in Jack Harich's paper titled: "The Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace". Jack, is  a consultant and systems engineer in Atlanta, Georgia, US and his ideas are published on thwink.org. I would suggest that my patient readers read it, as we move towards important leadership elections in both Zimbabwe and South Africa. The season of political electioneering will be upon us soon as we continue to grapple on how best to establish progressive social systems. It is therefore important that we really begin to reflect on the type of leadership now required to take Africa to the next level.

In this paper, Harich emphasizes why society is unable to solve any important problem whose solution would benefit the common good such as:  environmental sustainability, excessive income inequality, avoidable recessions, unnecessary wars, corruption among others.

I have contemplated a thousand times on why Africa remains locked in poverty and inequality despite the prodigious resource base which we possess. Perhaps it is only now, that I am beginning to have inkling on how we may be able to cause positive change.

Harich's paper has helped me tremendously in applying my mind on these issues. I anticipate that it may also do that for you.  We must become constructive citizens in confronting resistance to positive social change that we all desire and this, requires a deeper understanding of politics and the motives, behaviors and idiosyncrasies of those that practice it.

I want to deal here with Harich's disposition on politics, and why falsehoods and favoritism have long dominated it. Although he focuses on the problems in the so called developed world, I have tried to apply his methodology of analysis to Africa, and to Zimbabwe in particular. He talks about "the use by politicians of political rhetoric, half truths, glittering generalities, and the sin of omission, biased framing and other types of deception to appeal to the greatest number of people possible for election or reelection."

In this first part of a two, I shall deal with the problem situation and in the second part; I shall deal with possible solutions and how we may circumvent the problems that we face in taking Africa forwards.

In the paper, he describes "the race to the bottom" by politicians in a bid to gain political power. This race to the bottom, is when politicians use all sorts of falsehoods, deception, framing, corruption, the attacking of opponents to increase their power and influence.  Once they attain this, they then use it to further enlarge their influence and power base in a "race to the bottom". The interesting fact is that, this behavior is not limited by diet, complexion, climate or geographical location, but seems to lurk in the DNA of most politicians; it is the nature of the beast.

He identifies and explains five deception strategies commonly used by politicians so that they may continue gain our favor despite our "not so common" common sense telling us otherwise. The sad reality is that, it works almost every time, and we suffer for it because, we inadvertently end up affirming those individuals who may not necessarily be fit or competent to lead.

The above, of course, applies to Africa too, and the way we continue to almost elect the same breed of leadership, despite their dismal performance in addressing our socio economic concerns. We never seem to learn, and this is mainly because of the tactics of deception that clever politicians have mastered and, more dangerous, is the truth that; the masses generally have a very short memory.

The five types of deception identified by Harich are: false promise, false enemy, instilling fear, focusing on the wrong priorities and secrecy. This may sound obvious to most but, experience has shown us that, the leader who is cunning, shrewd and economical with the truth, more often than not, prevails over those who may be guided by principles of truth and honesty.

Our African leaders have created an enemy in our minds whom we must all fear: the imperialist or the white male. They have made false promises to liberate us from poverty and lack through black economic empowerment of the elite. They have instilled fear in our minds and the result is that, we are soon comfortable to conform lest we become victims of whatever it is that we "fear". They have also focused on those priorities convenient and advantageous to their continued rule, without necessarily considering our well being. They cleverly omit facts through secrecy and externalize all the blame for their failures.

If I look at the political history of Zimbabwe, I am able to unmistakably identify the use of the above deceptions over the last ten years or so. These among others, are:

  • The framing of the land ownership question as a benefit to the masses and yet only a few politically connected have really benefitted.
  • The false prioritization of indigenization at the expense of foreign direct investment which the country desperately needs.
  • The secrecy over the diamond revenues, for example, or the activities of the RBZ prior to dollarization.
  • The blaming of sanctions and imperialism for our economic woes and hyperinflation which were mainly caused by our ill informed monetary policy.
  • The fear created in our minds by the army, the police, the war veterans and the intelligence services so that we may conform while they retain their advantageous positions.
  • The continued threats that none else must dare to aspire to lead Zimbabwe
  • The suppression of free speech, freedom of association and a free press

Lurking amongst these deceptions are some truths, but these are more rare than common. From the above, it is quite evident that our politicians seem to have mastered the art of deception and gotten away with it. Our responsibility going forwards must be to ensure that, for once, we are not accomplices to it. This requires that we actively seek solutions to expose and act against these behaviors if we are to claim that we are truly free.

I am excited about our future herein Zimbabwe for the simple fact that maybe, just maybe, at last, we are going to have a political environment that is vibrant and participative. An environment where, the continuous questioning of our reality and assumptions is encouraged and can be the source of our advancement. Where those that seek to lead us, can no longer take it for granted that they have the incontrovertible right to lead us, despite their performance in government.

I truly believe that the more we create a discomfort of thought and opinion at the top, the higher our standards of public office are likely to be and, the better quality of life we can achieve. As John F Kennedy once said: "Too often we... enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought"

In my opinion, democracy can only benefit through our active participation in shaping it. As we go on to elect our new leadership in Zimbabwe and South Africa, it is important that we hold our leaders accountable for  their promises, identify deceptions and educate the masses on the need to competently evaluate, judge and elect those individuals who are best endowed to take us to the next level of development. We deserve that.

In order to achieve that we must understand the root causes of the "race to the bottom" and be able to effectively deal with them. In part two, I will attempt to suggest solutions how we can reverse "the race to the bottom" in our politicians by "the race to the top" as identified by Harich, and hopefully constructively contribute to the dialogue on Africa's leadership and future.

We are truly victims of our own limitations and the time surely has come for Africa to rise.

Vince Musewe is an independent economist based in Harare. You may contact him on [email protected]

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