Southern Africa, Mandela, ethnic bonds and resilience

Southern African farms are much like its peoples: as diverse as can be.  Many are as technologically advanced as any European or American farm.  My first visit was to a wheat and tobacco farm similar to my farm in Kentucky, though a thousand acres bigger.  This visit was just after control of Zimbabwe was taken from the Europeans and returned to the Bantus who had taken it from the Bushmen.[1]  The Europeans, mainly Dutch Boers who arrived about the same time they settled in North America, had established rich farms throughout Zimbabwe and South Africa.  Thirty years ago, when I first visited, the government was just beginning to take control of these farms.  I visited several of these “cooperative” farms which were run by groups inexperienced in commercial farming.  All were barely functioning.  Many had even leased their land to the Boer farmers nearby.

The farm I had been sent to help was celebrating the arrival of dozens of school-leavers.  They were supported by an NGO which hired managers with no experience in farming, much less commercial agriculture.  My main advice was to hire experienced managers.  The trouble was that such managers only existed among the Boers and those were the folks being run out.  Zimbabwe has continued the mistake of running out the proficient Boer managers for almost 30 years now.  The result has been impoverishment of one of the most prosperous countries of Africa.

When I was on the Zimbabwe border in Mozambique last year, most of the people had fled the poverty of Zimbabwe to come to a country only a little further from the bottom of the world’s economies. Thirty years ago, when I first visited, no one would have thought Mozambique could ever be a better place to live than Zimbabwe.  Until the early 1990s, Mozambique was still a scorched and destroyed country in an interminable civil war.

Almost exactly a year ago, I made my first visit to South Africa. Now in December 2013, South Africa seems to have taken over the news with the death of Nelson Mandela.  Today, South Africa, in some regions, is barely distinguishable from prosperous American suburbs. It’s neighbor, Zimbabwe, was once just as prosperous.  The difference is leadership.   Nelson Mandela insisted that the managers of successful, productive industries could remain at least partly in control of them.  In Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe took control of such enterprises away from their successful managers.

It’s such a stark and vivid case study of the effect of governance on management of adaptive systems.  It seems such a simple lesson to learn: productive, resilient systems depend on proficient managers.   Unfortunately, this simple truism contradicts the belief that Bantus should be in charge of everything.  Rather than permitting those who know and built the system to continue to manage it, this belief insures that management, however ineffective, belongs to a particular ethnic group.

Where allegiance to the ethnic group is much stronger than any desire for resilient, productive systems, the larger system or society will decline.  Earlier this year in Uganda, I noticed that most businesses were once again managed by Asians (mainly Indians).  These groups were tossed out of the country abruptly in the early 1970s.  After the businesses and the country experienced a sharp decline due to the lack of experienced managers, Asians were permitted back in the country.   Zimbabwe, still under the control of Mugabe, shows no sign putting the health of the country foremost.

Ethnic bonds can be a valuable and a crucial underpinning of productive, resilient social-ecological systems, as studies of social ecosystems throughout the world have shown.  It is one component of resilient connectivity between units in a system.  The trouble arises when the ethnic bonds are so strong that feedback is ignored and connections broken between other components in a system.

This has been observed in American cities.  Internal solidarity (also called bonding social capital) can help a city weather a storm, but cities don’t bounce back from severe catastrophe unless they also are highly connected with outsiders (bridging social capital).

In systems language, resilient systems have strong connections for feedback from both inside and outside.  However, resilient systems also have modularity.  That is, subsystems are not so tightly connected that failure of one component leads to failure of others.  As successful farms in Zimbabwe were confiscated, the remaining farms continued producing, often helping the new “cooperative” farms.

The economic system of Zimbabwe was thus permitted to only gradually decline.  It has taken Mugabe and his minions thirty years to almost completely destroy the system.  The decline of the system can only be stopped if bonding social capital is leavened with bridging social capital which attracts  competent management.  Uganda, with help from its neighbors, overthrew their leadership and established a more resilient system.  Zimbabwe waits for its people to throw off the shackles of its destructive leadership.

The danger for South Africa is that they will succumb to their neighbor’s systemic failings.  Now that Mandela is gone, the voices advocating racial solidarity may overcome those favoring a productive, resilient system.  Strong internal connectivity, such as ethnic bonds, can help subunits operate smoothly.  However, Mandela saw beyond the components to the larger national system interacting with other national systems.  He realized complementary diversity is required for all resilient systems.  Many South Africans today would destroy this diversity and the productivity and resilience which it enables.



[1] The Bantu culture expanded from Eastern Nigeria throughout Southern Africa displacing the hunter-gathering San as late as 300 AD.  The San were pushed into isolated desert regions.  Various tribes of the Bantu stock fought wars with each other for control of Southern Africa until the Europeans tribes came, fought their wars and left. .

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