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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?

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