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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!