Following the persuasive observations against colonialism made recently, I want to focus on one defect that seldom attracts the attention it deserves and goes to the heart of the issue.
Colonisation, or the rule of one nation over another, is the exact opposite of self-rule whereby people of a particular nation govern themselves.
Remember the American War of Independence that lasted for eight years from 1775 to 1783 in which 13 of Britain’s North American colonies won their freedom to construct their own vision of self-rule? Look where America is today: on top of the pile.
You have to know the culture and ethos of the people you are governing in order to get the best out of them. A foreign ruler simply does not have that breadth of understanding.
Brexit, which is going to be triggered at the end of this month, can be seen as a softer version of the American experience. Britain will regain its wholesale sovereignty after a lengthy period inside the EU. Indeed, the break-up could go further with Scotland opting for self-rule and Northern Ireland demanding to become part of Ireland. The United Kingdom would then disappear as a single entity and become more of a partnership between sovereign states.
All of the top performers in the world’s economy today, including America, China, Germany, Japan, Singapore, India, South Korea, Canada and Australia have fully absorbed the tradition of self-rule. Of course, there are institutions like the EU and the Commonwealth which act as umbrella organisations, but for the majority of countries within those organisations the conditions of membership do not intrude too much on their independence.
Yet, self-rule does not ensure success. For example, the world is replete with the failures of personal dictators who as the ‘supreme self’ in their country of origin exercise absolute power over the rest of the ordinary selves contained therein.
Equally, where citizen selves are so divided by ethnicity or religion that they end up in civil war or a permanent state of acrimony, independence becomes irrelevant. In many cases, the national boundaries were simply drawn too arbitrarily by the ex-colonial powers for the nation to be viable in the long run.
Hence, the trend in modern times has been towards democracy, a term which literally means ‘people power’ in Greek. The most common form allows citizens to rule themselves by the regular election of their leaders and representatives.
It was not always like this. On the one hand, Athens for 200 years had a direct democracy in the form of a citizens’ assembly that made every major decision of note concerning the future of the city; and on the other hand Rome was ruled by authoritarian emperors both good and bad. Both Ancient Greece and Rome did well in their own way.
I guess nowadays referendums like the Brexit one are a throwback to Greece and rule by a single individual or party is the equivalent of Rome. Interestingly, the USA veers towards Greece and China towards Rome. The two countries provide a sharp contrast between the principle of empowering the common people to influence future national strategy by electing the likes of Donald Trump; and the stability of having continuous rule by a single party acting like the board of directors of a company. Change in China happens in a more consistent manner.
Nevertheless, my preference is for the US model complete with its checks and balances. In concert, the four estates of the presidency, congress, the judiciary and the media limit the amount of ill-discipline, degenerate behaviour and unconstitutional action. Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee to join the Supreme Court, said at the Senate hearing this week that America is one of only a few countries in the world where the courts have the ability to overrule the President and it is something Americans should be very proud of.
South Africa has an identical system which has been very much in operation recently. Ministers are held in check by the judges when they stray outside the Constitution; the press exposes corruption; and the dynamic results of the recent municipal elections indicate the influence of the electorate. In how many countries has local government changed hands in both the political and commercial capitals of that country at the same time and in a peaceful fashion?
Moreover, in both the US and South Africa, power is devolved to states/provinces and cities. Self-rule is interpreted as a bottom-up rather than a top-down political approach. World-class cities are the principal driving force behind upward mobility and rising prosperity.
However, in one essential aspect of self-rule, we fall way behind America and that is in the economy. In my debate with Julius Malema at a dinner at the Cape Sun in February last year, it became clear that we agree on one thing: economic freedom for the individual is critical to self-rule but we still have economic apartheid.
It is as important to have an inclusive economy as it is to have a proper democracy. How can you meaningfully govern the direction of your life if you are in a state of permanent economic subjugation?
So we do need a revolution in economic thinking to complete the voyage. As I have said for years, central to this revolution will be the willingness to create the space and introduce the support structures for a new generation of entrepreneurs and industrialists.
We live in a world where self-rule is not just about exercising your vote to keep the politicians in line. It is about having the education and means to make the best choice in your own life and not be ruled by others.
Clem Sunter: Scenario planner, speaker and best-selling author.
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