POLITICAL ECONOMY TRANSITION SEEN THROUGH FOUR EMOTIONS

On 2 July 2016, I was invited to a SAPES Trust “Zimbabwe-in-transition Colloquium” to reflect on lessons from nearly forty years of being a student of the dynamics that are generated at the intersection between politics and economics. Transitions are continuously taking place around us – in families, in public and private organizations, in countries, globally, and generations – and they are always loaded with emotions; and seeking to understand these is an important exercise in any attempt to predict the future based on what individuals do today and why they do it.  The idea of transition involves change, mostly of passing on responsibilities from one group to the next, and often with wider implications throughout the institution and even society. Change inevitably involves winners and losers, and each group experiences these four emotions differently.

 Below I summarize my reflections at the Colloquium, working with the theme of “four emotions evoked by the idea of a transition” – the four being anxiety, panic, uncertainty, and hope.

1. Anxiety

When faced with a deterioration of present conditions, we become nervous about our future and what might happen; and if the changes will improve or worsen the conditions.  This fear of something unpleasant happening in the future is often triggered by perceived dangers inherent in the environment where we find ourselves. Africans first encountered European explorers and traders, curiosity quickly gave way to anxiety, a fear that the arrival of outsiders with new technologies was going to change their lives.

 Similarly, when colonial administrators watched the education efforts of missionaries among the Africans, there was anxiety and fear over what the Africans would do with the knowledge so gained. It was a similar emotion when Africans returned from fighting alongside the Europeans during World War II, with the colonial administration unsure of what ideas African ex-fighters brought back from as far afield as Burma and the Arab deserts.

 In most post-colonial Africa, the promise of improved services and economic opportunities fairly quickly gave way to anxiety – the new nationalist administration concerned that independence had created expectations that were too high to be met with available resources.  Kept away from gaining an inner understanding of the colonial state, the new African leaders were also anxious that they might not muster the art of running these states.  On the part of the population, the demand for continuity and expansion in state operations created anxiety after realizing that the changes they had been promised during the anti-colonial struggle were going to come at a slower pace than promised.

 Although regular elections of political representatives for groups of people has become a standard feature of democratic practices around the world, it is a process that generates anxiety in society; more so where these practices are recent or where resources are so constrained that the acquisition of political power is an important mechanism for accessing state resources for personal use.  Elections that have the potential to remove one group from power create major anxiety among potential losers afraid of what will become of them, but also among the winners worried that the losers might be unwilling to transfer state power without violence.

 In many instances where extreme anxiety comes before a transition, fear often gives way to Panic. 

2. Panic

This is the stage when a sense of urgency goes from individuals to the collective, giving rise to group desire for action, often poorly planned and executed.  Early efforts to resist colonial rule were very much driven by panic, with groups of warriors with spears and arrows taking on the crude guns that conquered Africa.  Equally, faced by the rise of nationalist peaceful protests in British India, the administrators panicked and took actions that were to mark the beginning of the unravelling of the British Empire around the world.  Panic exposed the ill-preparedness of the colonial administration to handle a crisis on the one hand, and the weak organizational structures of Indian population groups to resist unjust colonial laws on the other hand.  These were lessons that became the foundations of anti-colonial struggles in India and elsewhere as nationalist leaders learnt from each other.

 In many African countries, the first five years after independence were characterized by the promise of a new and prosperous society for all in the general population.  For the political leaders, deep differences quickly came to the fore between on the one hand those who had idealized an African society based on a hybrid welfare model with elements of traditional societies and the life colonial rulers had enjoyed; and on the other hand those who found themselves administering a state whose resources were fallings short of demands.

 In countries where the political leadership failed to recognize that ideological positions (like Ujamaa in Tanzania, Humanism in Zambia, and African Authenticity in Zaire) could not over-ride sound economic making processes, material poverty became widespread.  In other countries like Kenya and Malawi where political leaders recognized the need to free economic policy-making from political considerations, technical leadership oversaw a steady growth in materials well-being, but often at a cost to social cohesion.  Although the policy of economic empowerment and indigenization has successfully been used around the world to create wealthier societies, its political variant in Zimbabwe has yet to produce equivalent economic development.

The panic that set in on the part of many of these new post-colonial administrations often saw the emergence of state repression targeted at “political leaders whose populist ideals made them accuse the new African rulers of neo-colonialism”.  In these instances, panic did not lead to dialogue to resolve internal differences over resource sharing strategies between different groups in the post-colonial governments; opposition parties emerged, and were initially banned – again as a result of panic on the part of the ruling group afraid of losing power.

Panic in these circumstances grew over time and gave way to Uncertainty over the society’s future.

 3. Uncertainty

Having seen what the white man’s “stick that smokes” can do to African warriors armed with bows and arrows, African chiefs and their populations became doubtful of their ability to resist the advance of colonial occupation.  Similarly, colonial administrators panicked by the rise of post-World War II African nationalist consciousness and the emergence of global notions of human equality became uncertain over Europe’s ability to hold on to the colonies that were often many times bigger in terms of population and geographical size.

 In the post-colonial African states, the emergence of internal opposition generated uncertainty among the ruling group.  Having initially been convinced that a single strong political movement that spearheaded the attainment of independence needed to be succeeded by a Single Party State; internal opposition generated uncertainty and gave rise to a doubting of the viability of societies without pluralism.  A combination of national doubt and global pressures on the post-colonial African rulers saw the spread of multi-party politics and a proliferation of new socio-political movements.

Populations in many countries in Africa find themselves in this transition from Uncertainty to Hope, with the spread of wealth as a result of greater use of markets to improve production and economic growth.  This continuum nature of this transition means that countries are at different points, some even looking like the transition will never come.

Uncertainty has gradually given way to Hope as Africans have started to see a positive link between pluralism and socio-economic improvements at household and societal levels.

4. Hope

At independence, African societies were generally convinced that the future was bright and great improvements would take place in peoples lives – and this largely did happen.  The departing colonial administration often had hope that those left in charge of the African state had acquired the requisite skills to run a modern state; and significant inflows of development aid were maintained in the hope that sustainable development could be stimulated.  This belief in continuous improvement on the material conditions of life in Africa has been at the heart of “Africa Rising” narrative, a feeling with some evidence that life for the majority of people in Africa is recording significant improvements; although there are societies that feel that they are being left behind by this wave of economic development and change.

 Challenge of generational transition

 These four emotions associated with transition have characterised generational changes in Africa. 

 The decolonizing generation of leaders started off anxious and unsure if their efforts to bring about independence would be achieved in their lifetime; but the cause was one they were prepared to fight for and if need be die for.  The “wind of change” sweeping across Africa in the 1960s saw panic set in among leaders of newly independent countries – and the immediate reaction was to urge the decolonising power not to withdraw all its administrators, but to leave some behind to impart technical managerial and administrative skills to the new administrations. Even with the old colonial administrators still around to bolster the new African states, there was a quick realization that socio-economic development was slow and uncertain.  This uncertainty led to the implementation of a large-scale expansion in the education system in most countries with the goal of producing a new cadre of African public sector managers to run the new states.  The decolonizing generation thought that it could then leave the stage, with the hope and confidence that a new generation of leaders was in place to take African societies to the next level.

 This new post-independence public sector generation was not immune from the four emotions of transition either. 

 Given the moderate wages of public sector employees across Africa, the new class of public sector management were initially anxious over their economic future.  Faced with rising demands for services, low levels of skills in the economy, and declining economic growth, the public sector generation panicked and started appropriating public resources for their personal use.  Those occupying the senior levels of public sector management gradually became uncertain over their future, having watched military coups and counter coups destroy economic and social life in many African countries.  One consequence of an uncertain future in Africa was the rapid externalization of state resources from Africa to industrialized countries with more stable and predictable institutions for personal use.  These external resources were often used to educate the children of the public sector generation and gave them greater material comfort with the hope that they would become part of a global elite.  Public knowledge over these develops generates resentment and anger among the general population and feeds into greater uncertainty among the senior public sector management group.

 Transitions are unpredictable and often take place at many levels.  Thus, technological changes have produced a global digital generation that is spreading its influence across the world – linking the African youth with the hopes, ideas, and aspirations of other youths around the world.  In the transition from a public sector generation to the new global digital generation, the full cycle of emotions (anxiety, panic, uncertainty, and hope) are being played out and taking on inter-generational characteristics.

 The decolonizing generation only partially succeeded in transmitting their hopes for a successful society to the public sector generation; and it is equally going to be difficult for the public sector generation to fully transmit their hopes to the digital global generation.  The decolonizing generation had hoped to transmit the value of sacrifice to the public sector generation, but the drive for personal wealth saw a rapid growth in corruption that has national and international dimensions characteristic of a managerial class that is blind to race, colour or religion.  The idea that the public sector generation can pass on their hopes for greater political engagement with higher levels of material wealth to the global digital generation is likely to run into obstacles as this later generation becomes politically cynical and acutely aware that resources are finite and need better management.

 I am hopeful that this global digital generation will continue the trend to innovate and apply the results of such innovation to create new political, economic, social and cultural engagement processes.  At the same time, it is important for our public sector generation to recognize our inability to define the future using the very limited tools we bring from our past – with prescriptions likely to handicap rather than aid the next generation as they become global players; we must give the digital global generation the space to soar into the global sky.