Some Root Causes of the Socio-Political Malaise Afflicting us as South Africans and Others Further Afield

By Dr Reuel J. Khoza (Chairman of Nedbank Group Limited, Aka Capital  and author of several books including Let Africa Lead and Attuned Leadership) to “Nedbank Group Technology Leaders”  I  20 February 2017


The year 1997 was in many respects the year of South Africa’s reawakening.  Following Thabo Mbeki’s epoch-defining address, “I am an African”, delivered at the inauguration of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa in 1996, an era of discourse, introspection and thinking about the challenges facing South Africa and the African continent took root.

What then are some of the root causes of the malaise that afflicts South Africa and perhaps humanity? What follows is a limited selection of such root causes:

1. Forms of government

Africa inherited colonial forms of government, mainly of Anglophone and Francophone influence. The forms of government are largely parliamentary and parliament, instead of the constitution, is sovereign. This in effect is rule of man rather than rule of law, an opportunity Africa’s political elite have lost little time in exploiting. We compound this by conflating the three key institutions of government, i.e. the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, wherein all these become the manifest expression of one man’s will, either the President for Life or the Redeemer, hitherto known as a second-rate general in the army.

2. Group hegemony
We have taken for granted and perpetuated the notion of the group instead of the individual as the basic unit of political analysis and expression. Our politics are permeated by a concept of group rights instead of individual rights. We therefore create and / or solidify the existing schisms along ethnic, religious or ideological lines. In such politics the losing groups lose not only the elections, if there are any, but they lose their political, economic and human rights as well, if they are lucky.  It is not uncommon in Africa for them to lose their lives as well.

3. Zero-sum mentality
Our concept of life and its rewards, especially politics and the economy, is that of a zero-sum game. Our political and economic exchanges are characterised by a do-or-die mentality. In our understanding, success can only be at someone else’s expense; achievement means someone else has failed. As Steven Covey puts it in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Africa suffers from a syndrome of scarcity mentality where almost by definition, someone’s gain is always someone else’s loss.

4. Investment and wealth
Our attitude to investment and wealth reflects our scarcity mentality. We consume everything, including our seed stock for the future, with the justification that there is nothing to spare, that Africa is going through its metaphorical “seven lean years”. However, even in our increasingly rare “seven years of plenty” we choose conspicuously grand consumption to make up for the lean years.

We choose instant gratification over generational investment. We invest nothing but still expect the fruits of investment.

5. Investment in education
When we do get around to investing in education we invest less in the areas that really matter, such as the actual education of children, especially in mathematics and science. A greater proportion of our budget is consumed in building administrative edifices and ministerial headquarters. Our educational policies are often more parochial than informed by the universality of knowledge and technology. We expend a great deal of effort debating and assessing knowledge and technology, based on their origin and perceived ideological parentage rather than on their applicability and utility to our circumstances and needs.

6. Conflict resolution
In Africa we seem to have a simple approach to conflict resolution. Might is right.  We also appear to have a penchant for terminal solutions – i.e. nothing but the total annihilation of our opponents. Legal, moral or rational mediation or negotiations based on inalienable rights rarely suggest themselves as recourse for conflict resolution.

7. Ethics and morality
The social, economic and political decay of Africa is as much due to a complete collapse of public and personal morality as it is to other factors. When both the elite and the underclasses abandon morality in pursuit of power and / or wealth, this sets the stage for endemic corruption and crime. Over time we have come to accept that the only crime or sin as it were, is to be caught doing wrong. There is a tacit understanding that everybody somehow perverts the system and that they are fools if they do not.

8. Vision
It is now taken as received wisdom that the best of leaders are those who are vision-beckoned and value system predicated. The good book underscores this by proclaiming ‘where there is not vision the nation perishes’. I do not have to bore you with a litany of manifestations of lack of or limited vision here and abroad, Brexit and the ascendancy of Donald Trump being the most recent cases in point.

This is not to say there are no institutional structures of excellence here and elsewhere. There are many institutional beacons of hope that can, and probably will, light the way in our quest. To wit, freedom of expression, an independent judiciary, an active clergy, as well as some robust section 9 institutions.