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Tuesday, December 29, 2009




Writing in the late 1950s, C. Wright Mills observed that “Events that are beyond human decision do happen; social arrangements do happen without the benefit of explicit decision. But in so far as such decisions are made, the problem of who is involved in making them is the basic problem of power. In so far as they could be made but they are not, the problem becomes who fails to make them” More profoundly he argued, “We cannot today merely assume that in the last resort men must always be governed by their own consent. For among the means of power which now prevail is the power to manage and manipulate the consent of men”(C. Wright Mills, 1967:23)

Our governments in Africa like governments anywhere, tend to be the major crusaders against perceived social ills. They encapsulate the definition of what is wrong with our society as part of their political projects. In this process, they are both technical and stupid. They are as ambitious as they are ambivalent. In many respects, the people are on the receiving end of their misrepresentations. Their public utterances tend to have the effect of numbing the minds of the many by the few.

In Zambia as in other African countries, there is a yawning need to advocate for a “sensus communis” (Saul, 2001) view of government administration. One that works for the public good. I say a “common sense” view because as Saul clearly explains, it means “shared knowledge” that exists as a continuation of citizens and their recognition of the other, a consideration of the whole and not just an optimisation of individual self-interest. Saul points out that perhaps knowledge is the relationship that carries us above self-interest. A common sense government administration is not government made simple like the pictures depicted in Politics 110. It is not simply a managerial technicality to be answered by MPA and MBA degree experts, political scientists, or lawyers. Indeed it is not even the type based upon skilful political manipulation along the perverted ideological thinking of Machiavellian 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers (1998), now standard reading in some State Houses in Africa. Nay, a common sense view of government administration is fundamentally transformational and ethically responsible because above all, it is shared, participatory and thus truly democratic, accountable and dynamic.

Shared knowledge of what is important not for the few but for all, leads any government administration to appreciate what many successful nation-builders in history have either intuitively or consciously demonstrated. This is the view that “the first step in every community that wishes to preserve honesty, should be to set people above basic want” (Watkin Tench (1788) as quoted in Saul, 2001:83). This means to afford each and sundry realistic and achievable opportunities to have something to eat, somewhere to sleep, clean water to drink, a piece of cloth to cover one’s nakedness, and an opportunity to be respected and treated as a human being even when in error. This is an experience beyond popular concepts of “good government”. It is responsible and therefore accountable government.

A shared knowledge and understanding that a country like Zambia, so well endowed with resources can no longer continue to be driven by the language of poverty, means re-thinking our strategies of governance. A country that has survived challenges of wars that have engulfed our region cannot be pre-occupied with the language of violence or self-abuse, of protracted self-annihilation in electoral petitions that enriches a few “legals” while the people “suffer peacefully”.

A God-fearing nation with a sense of the transcendent cannot entangle itself in a culture that remains a formless fragment, like the unfinished Tower of Babel, where no one listens to each other let alone a shared sense of the fundamentals of what constitutes a public good. Alas, we want to be the first in casting self- images of failure: the nation of drunkards, the nation of plunderers, of the most HIV –infected persons. We wallow in newly discovered collective abuses, including the most trendy in recent years, a nation of child defilers. Images of failure these are.

Indeed it is the case that, corruption, alcoholism, HIV infection and defilement are dreadful experiences for any country and indeed these vices deserve appropriate policy and social responses. However for us in Zambia, we have lost a sense of realism. Realism is built upon understanding the big picture with its many uncertainties, entangled images and what they convey, an effort at putting together pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of everyday living and avoiding the propensity to be driven by forces of fragmentation, half-truths or just downright misinformation. When forces of fragmentation drive us, then let it be known that the commonality of shared knowledge which allows us to engage in a conversation of civility and rational action, has completely eluded us.

How do we respond in today’s politically correct spins? It is quite predictable. Big sins require confessional technologies and forms of atonement which are equally weighty. Why not castrate defilers? Why not demand death sentences. Let us go to the “max” for every known transgression. We lack standards. We say let us not stigmatise the HIV infected but why not make it mandatory for every one to go for Voluntary Testing and Counselling or VCT and then announce your status publicly as prescribed by our once Lady Minister of Sports, Youth and Child Development Gladys Nyirongo (Rev). I thought VCT was supposed to be confidential and indeed voluntary! How do we overcome stigma this way? Why not publicise and proudly parade our syphilis, our cancers, our alcoholism, our impotence? Where is the standard of health promoting behaviour? What public health science is this? Stone the Biblical prostitutes to death, is that?

Prejudice and hypocrisy have been the inescapable afflictions of moral crusaders of any kind from time immemorial. The Christian critique of “Pharisianism” is just one case in point. The expert judges of moral quality become victims of moral elitism. Their injuries upon society are real. It appears as though “human beings are incapable of carrying the weight of authority for judging the morality of their fellow humans without that weight itself distorting their viewpoint” (Dunstan, 1987:16)

As a case for extrapolating this absurdity, we can argue that careful ethical thinking based upon common sense with its intuitive features would lead us to the conclusion that corruption is offensive. It is a deed by individuals who have lost a sense of the common good, driven robotically by only the need to satisfy self-interest whether personal or corporate. And this reality exists, without any rational justification, in any society. The ethical problem however is not about people accumulating wealth for themselves, nay that would be the death of individual or corporate enterprise. Indeed, if that was the case, Karl Marx and his disciples would have buried capitalism long before Mikhael Gobarchev had chance to present a Communist surrender to Ronald Reagan. What is really corrupting is the unbridled and not just unlawful accumulation of wealth that loses a view of the common sense.

Wealth even when “lawfully” accumulated reaches a threshold when it is considered ethically repulsive, hence the “stinking rich” metaphors. In part, this becomes an ethical issue because common sense tells us that such wealth cannot be accumulated even by the best of saints without bending or rather corrupting the law itself somewhat with the help of clever lawyers and tax accountants. Some “concessions” squeezed out of weak economies like Zambia’s by corporate giants during the process of privatisation of the mining conglomerate ZCCM in the year 2000 can quite ethically be defined as corrupting the law. It left most Zambian citizens with a bad taste of inevitability in the mouth. The law itself had to be literally “corrupted” by a sort of legislative ‘displacement’. A specific law tailored to the interests of the new prospective investor had to be passed to protect their investments. Yet, it is in the fine definitions that these acts pass as acceptable business conduct at least for a while as Zambia’s case shows.

We are reminded that capital is mobile and we do not live at the centre of economic power play. Zambians may not wish to accept their weak economic and by extension weak negotiating positions but the reality laughs in our faces. Stronger economically, and almost a decade later, Zambia has had to re-visit the sordid act of economic rape that it suffered by passing new mining laws in 2008 that nullified the many legally binding “Development Agreements”. These Agreements initially signed by Anglo-American Corporation were later extended to many any other new investors who saw the rip-off benefits in the privatization of Zambian mines on the flimsy reasoning of “levelling the playing field”.

As we abhor corruption and its manifestations, we are equally reminded of the fact that the politically enhanced image of Zambia as a corrupt nation, is equally the product of the same forces that fail to discern individual frailty, and attribute to the entire society, a wrongfulness that their individual frustration, sometimes economic, or political self-interest seeks to project. It is a form of moral failure to distort reality (that is why laws such as those of defamation or libel have been invented). It is dangerous to ascribe the weakness of the few, sometimes even of self, to the image of a nation. When public issues are encumbered in such prejudice and moral hypocrisy, it is difficult to let justice “ring” as Martin Luther King would have put it. The wheels of justice are more likely to succeed in empirical manifestations of wrongdoing including corruption, when the systems of procedures of investigation, prosecution, trial and prudential justice by un-politicised courts are left to work independent of motivated mob psychology, a lynch culture, or indeed even ego-trips of individuals who want to be celebrated persecutors.

Moreover, as one religious leader, the now late Pope John Paul II once, had put it, “the blind egoism of the few should not be allowed to prevail over the cries of pain of the many, reducing the entire peoples to conditions of degrading misery”. This insight goes beyond the condemnation of the greed of the corrupt few. It also touches upon the psychological injury caused to a whole nation by egotistical crusades of those who by their self-assigned righteousness, crush every single grain of national self-esteem and render a whole people incapable of a positive, and ethically uplifting self-definition, sometimes at the price of three pieces of silver. Americans are all too well aware of the many Pentecostal televangelists, holy men, and their likes who crusaded on the platform of purity while amusing themselves in unspeakable peepholes whether of young dames or young boys. These puritans achieve these “spiritual” feats while demanding every dime from old lady pensioners or any curious minds. Theirs is an art done so passionately and persuasively, yet so deceptively.

Every garden has its weeds. We just have to look closely. The point is that we can deal with public injury, suspected or indeed caused by the few without creating debilitating images that injure the innocent majority. Which Zambian businessman will do business with outsiders without being “checked-out” since Zambians are “known” to be the most corrupt people, a status we have ascribed to ourselves! We can fight any wrong in our society, political or economic without incapacitating ourselves by ideological zeal. We can resist the emasculation of our identities by a manipulative benevolence of donor allowance whether to governments or Civic Organizations, or indeed even self-righteousness primordially driven by personal envy.

Let us fall back on the genius of our everyday selves as a people, to overcome those tendencies that limit our capacity to rise above want and instead drive us down into self-annihilation. Look at Rwanda. Yes, Rwanda was a terrible scene for genocide. Despicable, but to rise up, that country has had to move beyond the language of “genocideurs”. Clean democratic elections, forced that opportunity. Soldier, and now President Kagame has moved on to building a nation of normal human beings not xenophobic cannibals. Africa, what will it take to raise our people above basic want if not confronting ourselves with a real dose of realism? Why should our dreams only linger on as the social equivalent of skunk puffs, so real yet so utterly offensive!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009



Images have agents in real people as actors in a particular system of public action, in this case politics. We mistrust politics and politicians and are disappointed at the outputs of a barren political system and yet we participate in this apparent theatre of the absurd to dis-empower ourselves either actively or passively by creating political leaders whom we wished they were bigger than life idols to look up to. Zambians, like many of their fellow Africans, desire that government policy thinking should be driven by a sincere effort to move beyond ideological dogma and myths to pragmatism based upon a clear appreciation of our collective talents, our individual and national characteristics and virtues. However, as our leaders speak in tongues the ordinary folk, in so many ways, express their displeasure at being the “left-over” people, arrested in time and space like mummies in an ancient Egyptian tomb, a tourist spectacle but history nevertheless. Judging by the activism displayed by some non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Zambians, like many Africans, appear fed up of remaining “target populations” for the myriad expressions of global pity in a mega-digital world. They seek to rise above the image of subjects simply suffering peacefully! But how can they achieve these aspirations when they lack a responsible leadership?

In one of his very soulful musical expression, Nathan Nyirenda, a young Zambian music talent expresses the collective frustration at the miscarriage of development policies in Zambia in a song entitled “ Mwemakufi” (My Knees). He acknowledges the fact that the endowments of nature are many but the country’s wealth is simply on paper (as GDP) while people suffer immeasurably. For so much toil, the people get nothing. He wonders whether this is a racial curse or something else. He of course, like many frustrated individuals, simply exhorts God’s providence as an answer to his many questions in the hope that things would improve one day, hopefully miraculously. Yes we are true believers in the myth of miracles. And, in fact, we believe in the occurrence of miracles as a dedicated rational discourse. A rational discourse of despair has the possibility of a miracle as the moral of the story. The quest for a miracle carries with it a statement of despair and not of action to dare. It is a malignant cancer of illusions.


Any political argument, manifesto or ideology which does not help to overcome human suffering is worthless. Politics must be therapeutic. This view best translates the quest of one of the great philosophers…… However, human suffering is not a consequence of a mortal societal sin, but on the contrary, it is a reality in our human condition. Human suffering is imbedded in its specific forms in the initial conditions of the different social states we create in our human quest for self-improvement. Because it is intrinsic to each social state we create, it does not mean it is a necessarily acceptable state of such human self-improvement. In our human condition, it is the case that while human suffering is as real as human happiness, the specific manifestation of human suffering must be challenged all the time if society has to keep on creating conditions for happy fulfilling lives.

Because politics has to be therapeutic, it must have a subjectivity and meaning in the context of the recursive experiences of human effort to overcome material, cognitive and emotional challenges of everyday life. Politics is therefore about a form of practice of leadership that is realistic, inspirational and people-centred by empowering the least able individuals in society to overcome adversity. Leaders must have strong informed opinions about the human condition to be believable and to help empower the emasculated. Political leadership necessitates a greater sense of vision and by extension strong opinions about the state of affairs today and the prospects of change tomorrow. Realism in politics means a commitment to some core beliefs around which the people can be rallied. It is not about certainty, but faith in one’s ideals rooted in some ethical sensibility. Such ideals do not just jump into our heads. They are products of thought and discourse in all forms: rational and intuitive. There are things that are right or necessary and others that are not altogether right. In other words, politics as a practice of leadership must be ethical and humanly sane in its nature.

Timid people make poor, indecisive models for leadership. Weakness is never strength for a person who has no opinion of his own. Leaders with strong opinions are not dictators. They are advocates, movers and reformers. Mahtma Gandhi’s strong idealism of non-violence was in fact an opposition to values that violated democratic ethos. Democracy as an ideal of political governance is not about “iffy politics”. It is, in practice, the leadership capacity to garner the support of the majority towards a common societal purpose which has the objective of a common good. Politicians who do not feel uplifted in providing their opinions should stay at home making fortune cookies for their children. Political leadership is and must be a liberating enterprise capable of engendering human capacities to undertake actions across time and space which result into a better and sustainable living for society. A better life for all is of course subjective hence, the more reason why political practice must help society share common ground about acceptable human conditions to the greatest extent possible. Political leaders who cannot feel outrage at the site of human suffering do not qualify to be in politics.


Why, we may ask, does African politics and, in particular, its leadership, fail to inspire us into the hunger for new knowledge, enterprise, political enlightenment free from war and conflict, creativity and generally happy family lives? Why do we fail to transform challenges into opportunities for productive and useful enterprise?

Sometimes, spite may see as clearly as benevolence. And, therefore, if by account of mental infirmity, carelessness or delusion, in other words weakness, we deprive ourselves today of something so naturally occurring as the human experience and power to dream; if it will be said that our endeavours, if any at all, bequeathed for our children and their generations thereafter, a future deficient in quality leisure time; an existence bedevilled by sterile family lives; idiocy of the mind for lack of a zest for learning; and many poverties of unproductive work in a barren environment, then I am afraid that our time and our politics were nothing but phantom episodes, apparently real but meaningless.

We have an obligation to understand ourselves, to ask the right questions about what we see and hear and to act decisively and to understand our actions, and own up when we fail to achieve our aspirations. We need to understand the basic fundamentals of how we can preserve and enrich our environment by managing human capacities. We can not remain forever subjects of colonial anthropology, with no responsibility to redefine the many debilitating images manufactured by others in pursuit of our description. This series of papers are a critical exploration and description of images of failure in Africa with specific reference to Zambia. In doing so, we hope to highlight the dynamic practices that reproduce these failures across many policy fields. Hopefully, with such knowledge, we can attempt to challenge ourselves in future to overcome failure.

Friday, December 11, 2009




1. INTRODUCTION: Knotted in Images of Failure

In Zambia, as perhaps in many other Sub-Saharan Africa countries, we accept failure as if it was ordained onto us by the Divine. Failure is too readily accepted when we celebrate illusions whose inevitable consequence is a life of despair. Illusion feeds into despair when things appear to work, but they actually do not work. Under conditions of despair, we excuse failure too easily. In fact, we become angry at ourselves because we have failed and consequently, we are afraid to take on new challenges. We avoid a good fight because we fear the possibility of failure. On the other hand, when we choose to fight, we are lured almost irresistibly towards those same activities or strategies that precisely guarantee what we fear the most, failure. Thus illusions, failure, despair, anger and fear feed onto each other. Why, are we not capable of seeing through the recursive processes of human actions and their interrelated impact on or reaction to natural events over time and space?

David C. Korten (1999:3) argues that a paradigm is an imagery. He writes: “We each organize our knowledge into a personal image of the world, which serves as a kind of map in guiding our behaviour. To understand behaviour, understand the image. To change behaviour, change the image” (Korten, 1999:3) Another writer, C.Wright Mills (1967: 25) argued many decades ago that the history of modern society may readily be understood as the story of the enlargement and centralization of the means of power – in economic, in political and in military institutions. While men are free to make history, some men, he contended, are indeed much freer than others precisely because they have succeeded to concentrate these various means of power unto the institutions they control. Mills was not at the time of writing his 1950 paper on “Mass Media and Public Opinion” (Mills, 1967) fully grasping the concentration of power that would be wielded by another institution, the media and those who control it. It was a Canadian writer Marshall McLuhan, perhaps building upon Mills early insights, who fully captured this concentration of power by means of the media. He summarized the form this concentration had taken in his famous phrase, “the media is the message” (Mcluhan, 1964 ).

Images are descriptions of power and character people have and they are transported through many forms of media and experiences. A typical Zambian greeting starts with, “How are things with you?” And a very common, almost predictable response that cuts across many class lines, affirms an image: “Just suffering peacefully.” This is considered an appropriate response to an enquiry of one’s wellness! Another derivation to this response is “I am just surviving!” Let it be said that “suffering peacefully” is not a stoic attribute. It is a mis-statement of fact. We are frustrated at the fact of failure while at the same time we consider it inevitable, as a form of “surviving”. The cry of “surviving” is not a statement of contest against the elements of nature but an admission of our emasculation in a system of global and our own country’s social, political and economic power where we, as individuals, accept that we count for nothing. We look to those in power ( the "governing elite" as defined by Edmond Grace SJ (2007:14) in DEMOCRACY AND PUBLIC HAPPINESS) but lack the expressive language and force of action to compel them to do the right things. In fact we inertly know that they cannot do anything because they are not real leaders. They are surrogates and surprisingly we adore their folly as good sense.

Our sense of inevitability of failure starts with our unusual inclination towards grandiosity, the basis of illusion, a kind of insanity. “ Smoking Banned in public places” read the Zambian print media depicting the Minister of Local Government and Housing in May 2008. This ban coincided with the Global Campaign against smoking largely driven by Western Governments. The BBC carried the Zambian story of apparently ‘bold’ action calling for a “total” ban while presenting the argument by the Minister of Public Health in the UK about a ban on branding of cigarettes. When you listened to the BBC report on the issue of smoking in the UK in general and government and public reactions to the new policy initiatives, you quickly realized the image of failure inherent in the Zambian decision without its being explicitly discussed by the BBC. The Zambian story was a background, albeit an ambitious one. The BBC focus on the UK experience clearly highlighted the complexity of a “ban” approach. While desirable, it was hardly enforceable in practice.

The media transported the image of failure even before the politics of the “ban” in Zambia could be well understood by the majority of the Zambian citizens. The Zambian “ban “ coming through a statutory instrument by the Minister of Local Government and Housing had not been part of any public policy debate issue at any point in recent times. The question of “public spaces” involved in the definition and how they could be policed was never debated. How then can we understand this practice of policy making and the possibility of success? Few if any Zambians understand the public health arguments involved in the ban. In contrast, many Zambian farmers have taken up the government’s agricultural policy to encourage large scale tobacco growing in the Eastern, Central and Southern provinces of Zambia following an equally compelling argument by the then Minister of Agriculture the learned Mr Mundia Sikatana that public health concerns aside, it pays to grow tobacco. That Zambia should add value to this product by processing it locally was well received even if no investor was standing in line to put money on the idea. He added that the general thrust will be to export. Export to which countries in the context of the Global concern on smoking? An even interesting observation is that this recent assault on smoking is not the first one within the last decade and half. It was pronounced in the 1990s by the Health Ministry. Why it never succeeded then has not been made part of any public policy debate by the Zambian authorities. The fact is that it is simply good enough to be seen to be taking action, or policy pronouncements as an end in itself. Illusion is better than reality!

Turning to a different story. On August 5, 1987, then Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda announced that the government could not continue providing free medical and educational services because of economic problems. The Party owned Times of Zambia (August 5, 1987:1) reported Kaunda as saying that: Zambia was proud to have provided free social services but this was no longer possible. According to him, ‘We have reached a stage where we all must accept that it is no longer possible for the nation to continue as before’. This was part of Zambia’s strategy for restructuring the economy. Kaunda is reported to have told Zambians that ‘No one person, donor nation or organization owes Zambia a living. We have to rise and look after ourselves...’ In the same vein Kaunda was reportedly concerned about Zambia’s rapid population growth. The Times of Zambia, a State-owned media, reported that the government’s Planning Commission and ‘foreign experts’ were studying the issue to assist the government in devising a National Population Policy. The image was complete: too many natives were reproducing themselves at the rate Western charitable instincts to heal and to civilize, would not cope. A new industry of contraceptives were launched, some of it with doubtful value or even down right dangerous. Foreign AID to the Kaunda regime had to be conditional upon less reproductive sexual encounters among natives. Have these strategies of manipulative power achieved the intended outcome of overcoming human suffering, if there existed any such clear objective at all in the first place?

The question that comes to mind is: why would reasonable men and women of power pronounce policies which they know very well they do not fully have the capacity to implement?