Why stupidity fills corridors of public office

Jan 23, 2017

> Ranga Mberi

BACK in 1933, a British philosopher called Bertrand Russell penned an essay, “The Triumph of Stupidity”. It was an essay on the rise of the Nazis in Germany, an era that was to define Europe and perhaps much of the world.

Where were all the intelligent people in Germany while such idiocy was on the march, he asked in his essay.

“Those elements of the population which are both brutal and stupid – and these two qualities usually go together – have combined against the rest . . . they have subjected the intelligent and humane parts of the nation.”

He then made this famous quote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world, the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

This is how we end up with “the stupid” in public office, and the so-called intelligent ones out there in the terraces, relegated to a life of cynical commentary.

This week, in Zimbabwe, the Minister of Local Government Saviour Kasukuwere told a reporter that given the poor state of administration in local authorities, there now needed to be a minimum qualification for people standing for office as councillors.

In 2015, the Mayor of Harare, Ben Manyenyeni, said at a meeting of urban councils that many of the councillors leading the city were functionally illiterate. The city, he said, needed councillors with recognisable skills. The meeting did not end well. The mayor was threatened with violence by councillors, almost all of them from his own party.

“Why did he say that, what is he trying to prove?” an irate councillor was quoted as saying. Manyenyeni had to apologise after the leadership of his party, the MDC, was forced to hold a crisis meeting.

It is a tragic reality; those we see as capable just do not have the gumption for the job, and those that do have the gumption to do the job are plainly incapable.

We see this when it is time to find people to put into public office. It is the so-called ruffians that are willing to raise their hands, step forward and plunge in. Those we think are the more sober ones that should lead public administration are cowards. The so-called “better leaders” won’t get down and dirty in the pig swamp that, sadly, is African politics.

The nice guys don’t have the stomach for it. They feel they are too good to stand as councillor of their local neighbourhood or to stand as an MP. They have a reputation to keep, they feel, so they retreat and cede ground to the brave but gormless ones.

This is how the neighbourhood hooligan ended up being your councillor. When elections came he was the only one brave enough to get dirty. The nice guys stayed at home.

Yes, we may need those brave and blunt people in office. But we also need the sharper ones. Bravery is a great attribute in a leader, but it surely can’t be the only attribute of all the administrators we have. They end up only making brave decisions, but not always smart ones.

Bravado wins elections, but it doesn’t always build economies. Everywhere we look in our economies, we see the impact of decisions made more out of bravado than basic intelligence.

When we read the Hansard, the record of Parliament debates, and laugh and cry at the level of debate among our MPs, we must always remember Bertrand; the intelligent ones were just not as sure of themselves as the dumb ones were.

In Zimbabwe, that is how we ended up with the country’s favourite sport, football, being led by Philip Chiyangwa, king of cringe-worthy selfies. When the call to lead the football association came, there were not many “intelligent” guys around to step up. He did. And now we live with the consequences.

We need our best brains to be as brave as our not-so-best ones and step up to public service. It’s not an easy decision to make for anyone, especially in poisoned environments where the peanut gallery is always waiting to throw shade, as millennials would say.

Take, for instance, award winning writer Petina Gappah. Her day job for years has been that of international trade lawyer, a job that entails advising governments on how to find their way through the complex maze that is international trade. Recently, she wrote of her wish to one day soon join the Zimbabwe civil service, despite the low pay and poor conditions.

The triumph of stupidity around the world, Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump in America, had taught her to look towards home. “I will have no country other than my own,” she wrote.

The reaction was swift. One website headline screamed that Gappah had declared she was joining Zanu-PF, the party of President Robert Mugabe. She was accused of plotting to “prop up the regime”, a popular refrain of the delusional let-everything-crash-and-burn brigade.

It is because we have come to expect a certain type of people to be the only ones that raise their hand and step forward for public service. We should, in fact, be encouraging the so-called technocrats to step forward and work. Politics is mud wrestling all over the world, but surely there must be some space somewhere for fair play.  The “intelligent” ones need to overcome their fear and scepticism and borrow some of the enthusiasm of the less intelligent ones.

As Bertrand put it: “Perhaps we shall have to realise that scepticism and intellectual individualism are luxuries which in our tragic age must be forgone, and if intelligence is to be effective, it will have to be combined with a moral fervour which it usually possessed in the past but now usually lacks.”

The problem is the “stupid ones” are far more dedicated to their stupidity than “intelligent” ones are dedicated to their intelligence. Surely we can do better. We deserve better.

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January 2017
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