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November 26, 2017 » 8:01 am

Mugabe, Democracy, and the Unbearable Intertwingularity of Structure and Culture

The November 17, 2017 issue of the Eurasia Group’s excellent Signal newsletter reminds us that the now deposed Robert Mugabe was not always a “cartoon dictator”:

Mugabe, a school teacher and freedom fighter, was jailed in Rhodesia in 1964, the same year Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa. But Mugabe’s country gained liberation before Mandela’s. In 1980, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, and Mugabe became prime minister.

In the beginning, Zimbabwe was a developing world success story, the “bread basket” of Africa. Its economy was dynamic and diversified. Mugabe the teacher governed a nation with one of the continent’s highest literacy rates. He became president in 1987. But over time, the economy slowed, and his hold on his people began to slip. In response, his newly radicalized policies began to drive the country’s economy into the ground. The liberator then used violence to essentially crown himself king.

Running for re-election in 2008, he promised to abide by the people’s verdict. He finished the first round in second place, and announced that “only God” could remove him from power. Preposterous levels of inflation made cash less valuable than paper. Unemployment hovered above 90 percent. Millions fled the country. The king is now 93, and his subjects are fighting in the open over what comes next.

Past a certain number of people and issues, pure (i.e. direct) democracies do not scale (although technology potentially changes this). (This is true in all group contexts, not just societal.) So we create shortcuts, which — in the case of societies — usually looks like representative democracies. Shortcuts are efficient, but they (willingly) shift power away from the people, creating opportunities for abuse.

When it comes to power, if there are opportunities for abuse, someone will generally exploit them. To counter this, we create structural checks and balances. This results in new kinds of complexity, which can not only defeat the purpose of the shortcuts, but can also end up being more inefficient and less effective than the original structure you were trying to improve in the first place.

What often happens in this case is that people lose faith in the structures. We see this all the time in countries (including our very own right now). We see it all the time in organizations too.

Often, the criticism is merited. It’s critically important to acknowledge and try to fix structural flaws. But it’s also critically important to remember structure is not everything. Culture — our norms and beliefs — matters too. Shifting those norms and beliefs is really hard, but it’s not necessarily harder than changing structures.

Changing structures can shift culture, but it’s not the only way. The other way can seem messy and unpredictable, because it involves people, but sometimes it’s actually easier, and often, it’s better.

I wonder what would have happened in Zimbabwe if they had had a truth and reconciliation process in 1980 as South Africa did post-Apartheid. Similarly, what would this country have been like if we had had such a process following the Civil War?

In general, what would happen if countries took the time to align around a truly shared, collective vision? What if we consciously and intentionally invested in developing empathy in our citizenry?

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt via Wikimedia Commons

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