Open Society in Africa – potential and limitations of technology

On Friday 22 May 2015, the Swedish Embassy in Harare invited guests to a discussion on what it means to be an open society in a globalized world – with a focus on Zimbabwe.  Much tweeting (#SWEDISH OPEN FORUM) around this event expanded the discussion to an audience beyond the 230-odd who attended in person.  I chose to explore the subject through four questions:-

1.    What is it?

2.    How does it come about?

3.    Where is its relevance to Africa?

4.    Where is Zimbabwe in this context?

1. What is it?

The concept of open society  was originally suggested in 1932 by the French philosopher Henri Bergson; and further developed during the Second World War by Austrian-born British philosopher Karl Popper. Popper’s five characteristics of open society were that it is:-

1.    a stage in a historical continuum reaching from the tribal closed society,

2.    critical of tradition

3.    about reaching the abstract or depersonalised society without face-to-face transactions.

4.    a critical frame of mind on the part of the individual, in the face of any kind of communal group think.

5.    not about democracy, capitalism, or a laissez-faire economics.

2. How does it come about?

For its post-World War II supporters, open society is where:-

1.    the government is responsive and tolerant,

2.    political mechanisms are transparent and flexible.

3.    authoritarianism is opposed.

George Soros, a disciple of Karl Popper and having lived under Communism before its collapse, has strong opinions and actively engages on issues of open society, with his main arguments being that:-

1.    in open society, we should explicitly make a strong commitment to the pursuit of truth to support the separation of powers, free speech, and free elections.  For Soros, “politicians will respect, rather than manipulate, reality only if the public cares about the truth and punishes politicians when it catches them in deliberate deception."

2.    today’s sophisticated use of powerful techniques of subtle messaging/deception borrowed from modern advertising and cognitive science by conservative political operatives such as Frank Luntz and Karl Rove challenges Popper's original conception of open society.

3.    the electorate's perception of reality can easily be manipulated, and democratic political discourse does not necessarily lead to a better understanding of reality.

The three elements by George Soros, one of the foremost advocates of Open Society, are a good summary of issues in this discourse.  

The concept of open society runs into problems when it comes to implementation.  For instance, it can be argued that social media, the Internet, and overall connectivity have created conditions that make African society open.  At the same time, I can Tweet and do Facebook posts to my heart’s content; until what I say becomes offensive to others: and then my contributions are “pulled down” by faceless individuals working for media institutions. Cyberspace has created a new reality in a whole range of human activities – from investments, trading, financial flows, commodity prices, politics, etc. – where information flowing across global information networks can bring about shifts in global moods and attitudes to individuals, companies, communities, nations, etc. through what seems like “faceless rulers” of the universe.  These in effect function like the “HA-HAs” constructed in England to give humans and domestic animals unrestricted view by building walls into the ground at the end of a ramp instead of putting up a wall above ground.  The institutional restrictions/obstacles to individual actions when it comes to an open society have become the main arena of debate on the political economy of open society. 

3. Where is its relevance to Africa?

We can approach the idea of “openness” in Africa by identifying three important stages:-

1.    Pre-colonial societies (often tribal and for Popper “closed”);

2.    Colonial society where tribal societies were modified by new religions, production relationships, and consciousness about the individual and society; and therefore on the road to being “open”.

3.    Post-colonial independent societies, more integrated into the global economy and culture, more impersonal, digitally highly connected; and therefore considered “open”.

In contrast to the above perspective, Africans generally think that:-

1.    Pre-colonial societies might have been tribal, but they were relatively open to trade with outsiders.

2.    Colonial societies might have liberated the tribal mind through literature, but the African world became “closed”.  An open society cannot have slaves or a colonized people!

3.    Post-colonial African societies have experienced unprecedented opening to global culture, economy, and technology; but poverty remains a great barrier to access for the majority of Africans.

4.    In spite of rising global consciousness on the characteristics of open society, the African individual is often constrained by a consciousness/fear of how individual actions will affect the family and the wider community.  This might partly explain why the actions of individual Africans are in many instances contrary to general public opinion and expectations – for instance when it is time to elect their leadership that might be at variance with the dominant political party.

4. Where is Zimbabwe in this discourse?

The people who lived between the area bounded by the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers, the Kalahari Desert, and the Indian Ocean built a functioning society for over four centuries – the Empire of Mwene Mutapa (called Monomotapa by the Portuguese) – based on rules governing trade within the empire and with outsiders (especially Arabs and the Portuguese). It took internal political strife, a depletion of resources, and the transformation of European Traders into Colonisers to change an empire into a colony.  The pre-1880 society in this African empire was carved up between European powers and a young seedling of openness was trampled underfoot.

Zimbabwe today has both open and closed dimensions:-

It is open to the global import of goods, which account for more than double what it exports to the same global market. At the same time, it has a huge out-migration (with over 25% of its population making up the Zimbabwe Diaspora).  The world is therefore open to receive well-education Zimbabwean citizens, and to sell goods to Zimbabwe on account of its continued trading using global currencies.

On the other hand, Zimbabwe receives few immigrants and visitors from around the world.  There are local circumstances that “close” Zimbabwe to immigrants and the outside world to its goods – these circumstances being global perceptions that Zimbabwe is not a country of opportunities on account of the rules/regulations that make the country unattractive to investors.  These rules/regulations effectively hold back the productive potential of Zimbabweans and denies them a bigger share of global commerce.

For Zimbabwe, the prevailing negative global perceptions are stronger than the reality of openness on account of all its exports, greater connectivity, and proliferation of social media. Understanding why this is so in Zimbabwe and not in other African countries in similar and comparable circumstances is an important question for the students of an African Political Economy of Open Society.