by Hannes Wessels
Recently I watched a video clip of people being interviewed in what was still then Salisbury (now Harare) days after the official announcement made by then Governor Soames confirming that Robert Mugabe would head the first government of the newly independent Republic of Zimbabwe.
All the Africans interviewed were thrilled and spoke gleefully of the new dispensation that would bring them free homes, free schools, free hospitals and almost boundless prosperity. The Europeans, on the other hand, were, almost without exception, apprehensive at best and downright angry at worst. They disagreed vehemently with the majority but this view was easily dismissed as typically racist and sour grapes on the part of a once privileged elite.
But this visual is a painful reminder of the inherent dangers that come with the introduction of liberal democracy to countries where the majority, possibly through no fault of their own, lack the basic knowledge needed to make a sensible decision based on facts about who is best placed to improve their lot in life. This is simply because they don’t understand the fundamentals essential to the creation of real wealth and the provision of good governance.
I cast my mind back to photos of the long queues that formed outside the banks in Dar es Salaam after Julius Nyerere came to power in Tanzania. The citizenry who voted him in and celebrated the end of British colonial rule believed that they could, with immediate effect, withdraw the money they needed from newly nationalised commercial banks because their understanding of the new dispensation was that all the money in the vaults had now become the property of the people. Much the same sad scenario has played out in some shape or form throughout Africa; hiding behind a veil of democracy millions of simple people had been cruelly hoodwinked into believing the impossible and this has seen most of the wealth bequeathed these countries by the former colonial powers quickly squandered prior to the descent into poverty and very often, chaos.
I clearly recall Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith appealing to a hostile world to hear his plea to be given time to implement an electoral system and a franchise, based, not on race, but on education and status that would facilitate the steady growth of an electorate made up of an informed black majority that would, in the course of time, be free to elect the leadership of its choice.
His point was premised on the fact that democracy was a new and relatively sophisticated political mechanism that would need time to be understood and absorbed by a majority used to a system where power was invariably acquired through violent endeavour. He reminded the few who would listen that the European had stumbled on to a continent where rule was by decree, based on often brutal authoritarianism with little or no recourse to any individual or institution where what we now refer to as our ‘human rights’ were interfered with; simply put, the platform to power in Africa was based on the maxim, ‘might is right’. He argued time was needed to wean the majority off this daily diet of arbitrary misrule before the majority could ingest the utterly alien and complex political systems and institutions that the colonists had introduced.
He was also at pains to point out that the European had introduced a modern communications infrastructure to facilitate the development of a diverse and complex economy that required a high level of skill and expertise to manage and maintain so he implored his critics to accept that politicians, civil-servants and captains of industry and commerce had to be suitably qualified or it would all collapse. Well we all know these entreaties were dismissed as the rantings of a mad racist and ignored. We also now know that Zimbabwe, along with much of post-colonial Africa is wrecked; now we watch as South Africa appears to follow the familiar, tried and tested road to ruin.
This much celebrated democracy, delivered by Nelson Mandela, was recently relieved of the popularly elected President Jacob Zuma, a man who almost certainly would be unable to run a tuck-shop, who was tasked with managing the most developed country in Africa. Needless to say, apart from the gross incompetence his administration exemplified, we now, thanks to the revelations of the Zondo and other commissions, are getting the full blast of the truth about what happens when you fill the public sector and state-owned institutions with fools and villains. The damage done is almost certainly irreversible and while some are hopeful of more responsible rule under Cyril Ramaphosa, I fear I see the writing on the wall.
Despite failing almost every single test of decent governance and set to continue to direct the country on a path to poverty, the ANC will almost certainly retain power after the next election due in May. This will happen, simply because most of the electorate, are naïve, angry, easily misled and unaware of the political confidence-trick that is playing out before their very eyes. Democracy has had its woeful way; Jacob Zuma got most of it wrong but I fear he is right when he assures us, “The ANC will rule South Africa until Jesus comes back.” For this I suppose we can blame the Greeks.