- focus on the system, not individuals
- the system is only as strong as its weakest critical component
- target your efforts on the single point of failure
What is a system? A system is a collection of interdependent parts. A systems approach is a way of looking at things as interrelated items combined into one thing.
Which systems do we oppose in Zimbabwe?
- The corruptive systems
- The autocratic, tyrannical, and repressive systems
- The poor economic management systems
- The partisan and exclusionary systems
- The anti-development systems
- Systems that deprive us of basic human rights
These are the systems we oppose. These are the systems we seek to disintegrate. These systems contribute to one giant autocratic system that runs Zimbabwe. They contribute towards the whole. These systems developed over time. Robert Mugabe was instrumental in authoring some of these systems.
The law enforcement systems, justice delivery systems, tender systems, and resource allocation systems, are some of the worst subsystems of our system.
The system as a whole can be defined by the main characteristics that distinguish it from other systems elsewhere. If one were to describe the system in Zimbabwe, oppression and corruption would be the dominant features. There is corruption in every country in the world, but the levels of corruption in Zimbabwe are markedly high. Governments are repressive all over the world but the levels of repression in Zimbabwe are evidently higher.
For example, there is rampant corruption and bad economic management in South Africa, but the levels down there are nothing compared to Zimbabwe.
95% of the people wish we had better systems. 5% of the people do not want these systems to dissolve. Their selfish interests are better served under these systems. If the majority is suffering under these systems, how best can they dispose of the systems that are making them suffer.
In order to disintegrate the systems that they oppose, the people and their leaders ought to adopt a systems approach. They need to view the system as a system. The approach needs to be systems-oriented.
The process of disintegrating a system is really the opposite of integration. A system that maintains itself, regardless of incumbents is a well-oiled system. Disintegrating means separating parts from connection to the whole such that certain parts exist in isolation and cannot be integrated back into the whole. Disintegration could also mean bringing the entire system to a halt in a situation where some parts of the system just don't work. They become broken and cannot be put together again, just like Humpty Dumpty.
A common mistake committed by revolutionary movements is to focus on individuals within a system instead of focusing on changing the system.
So, we got rid of Mugabe and replaced him with ED. The system did not change. Okay. ED is bad, let's look for another one. Let's replace him with Chibabest, that one seems to be a better option. Then it turns out the guy is not really what you thought he was. Let's get him out.
How about we give the chance to govern to Nelson Chamisa. His political party promises to be tough on corruption. Ah! Things are not going so well. Let's replace him with Tendai Biti or Welshman Ncube. Corruption is still rampant. What shall we do?
Individuals at the top matter because they author systems. However, when you already have entrenched systems, what you really need to focus on is changing the systems. Individuals matter but not any greater than the collective. It is possible to swap individuals that reign over systems without changing the systems. It is not naive to rely on individuals you put in positions for them to change the systems. That's the way things normally work.
However, it is even better to focus on changing the systems such that whoever gets to occupy an office does not change the systems that much. We must fight against the systems, not against people. The struggle is on building better systems instead of getting better people into positions of power, even though the latter is important (unequally important).
Now, the reality, as some would be quick to point out, is that some of these systems cannot be changed without the assumption of political power. An example is an electoral system. ZEC cannot be reformed without the blessing of a president who is leaning towards democratization. The reality to that reality is that you might never get such a president. So, what do you do? You wait until you get the right guy in the office, who has no qualms about losing influence over ZEC. How long will that wait be?
Instead of waiting in vain, for eternity, the struggle should be focused on changing the electoral systems with or without the assumption of political power by a good president. It is hard but it has to be done. A pure systems approach will find ways of enforcing reforms to the system without first assuming political power.
This is the difficult circular conundrum that the MDC faces. In order to win elections, electoral reforms are needed. These reforms cannot happen without the MDC obtaining political power first. The MDC cannot obtain political power without winning elections. So, what do they do?
From a pure systems approach, the MDC should be able to observe that the electoral system is connected to the judicial system, which is connected to the national security system, which is connected to other systems, et cetera. When looking at all these systems, they would be able to get a better picture. They would be able to zoom into each sub-system, then zoom out into the bigger system, the grand scheme of things. They would be able to see the sequential order of subsystems and thus focus on changing each subsystem in the order dictated by the grand systemic sequencing.
From a systems approach, several questions can be asked. How did Mugabe build these systems? How can they be unraveled?
Corruption is endemic to Zimbabwean society. Public sector corruption is a thriving system. How do we fix it?
In China, they have a death penalty for corruption. In Rwanda, it is purported that corrupt elements just disappear from the face of the earth. In Zimbabwe, the state is big on words but little on action. The state is not really anti-corruption. How can the people change the corrupt system without state power?
Some time ago I overhead a pub conversation from two chaps. One was saying the only way to stop corruption in Zimbabwe is to have anti-corruption vigilantes like the ghetto anti-crime vigilantes in South Africa.
He said if anti-corruption vigilantes grab just one corrupt traffic police officer, one corrupt ZIMRA officer, and one corrupt passport office officer and then implement mob justice, the country will be free from corruption for several months.
In some South African townships, when a criminal has caused immense pain to society, they sometimes grab the criminal and burn him in the street with fire from old car tyres and papers. If the police try to rescue the criminals, they also burn the police vehicles.
The pub guy’s views were derived from this practice, which emanates from the failures of the justice delivery system. Criminals don't get arrested quickly, when arrested and convicted, they don't get lengthy penalties, etc. The same situation is apparent vis-a-vis corruption in Zimbabwe. The justice system is not immune from corruption as well.
Under the pub guy’s vigilante/mob justice approach, the three corrupt elements (traffic cop, ZIMRA guy, passport office guy) would be burned in the street for corruption. The event will be streamed live on Instagram, Facebook, and the Tubes. He termed that act of barbarism “doing the Lord’s work” and glorified it as “fixing the country”.
It is very easy to see where this guy is coming from. The resort to violence is primal because it appears as if everything else has failed to tame corruption. Even the anti-corruption commission can be corrupted. The vigilante/mob justice approach would build in a very strong disincentive for corruption. It is toying around incentives and disincentives.
The outcome from such a “Live on IG” burning of corrupt elements would firstly be a shock to the whole world, not just Zimbabwe. The reaction will be shock, disgust, anger, resentment, etc. towards barbarism and jungle justice.
But beyond that public and personal reaction, another reaction would appear from those who hold public office. The reaction would be fear. Those officers that hold public office will be strongly forewarned. They will desist from demanding bribes for a while. No one wants to be caught demanding bribes and be burned by the vigilantes “Live on IG”. A strong disincentive towards corruption enters the equation. Something to be feared. Something more serious than a police report and dismissal from work. A balance of incentives and disincentives is somewhat attained. The wages of sin could literally be ‘death’.
The public officers will fear the people. Things would have turned the other way round. Currently, it's the people that fear the public officers. The taximan fears the traffic police so he pays the bribe, otherwise, his car gets confiscated. The cross-border trader fears the ZMIRA customs officer. The public fears the passport office officers. A “Live on IG” burn would reciprocate the fear. The traffic police officer will fear the taximan, so he won't demand any bribe, lest his name is given to the vigilantes for the “burn” list. The same goes for the customs officer and passport office public officer.
Fear is a basic instrument of control. Violence is the fuel for fear. Anti-corruption vigilantes will literally be burning corruption.
Corruption will be fixed, at the level of public officers that interface with the public. However, the success will be short-lived. Societies have short memories. As time goes on, the event will become less and less imprinted in people’s minds and corruption will rear its ugly head again. The vigilantes can burn even more corrupt public officers “Live on IG”. The returns from each successive burn will have diminishing returns. Over time, people will become desensitized, and life goes on, and corruption goes on, albeit at levels lower than the times when there were no vigilantes.
This is exactly what has happened to the ‘burns’ in South African townships. Each burn is followed by a period of very low crime. But sooner or later, criminal activity increases again. As soon as one thug drops out another one is born.
The vigilante approach works, but only for a limited set of time. Furthermore, it totally ignores the ability of the government to crack down on the vigilantes. Just one “burn” is like kicking the hornet's nest. It would bring untold suffering on the population from the police, army, and intelligence services. Communities will be persecuted, and people will be tortured. The jungle justice act will be seen as an attack on the government. It will be deemed as an act of war. Violence begets violence.
Vigilantes are a threat to any society because they challenge the state’s monopoly on violence. Only the state should be able to dish out violence in any society without any challenge. This is the only way to preserve order and ensure justice. Once a society travels down the jungle justice route, then arbitrary judgments, and kangaroo court trials become the order of the day and society further breaks down, becoming a worse version of itself.
A systems approach would recognize that corruption is a systemic problem, not just an individual problem. It is not public officers alone that are corrupt, the public itself is corrupt as well. Many times, it is the public itself that offers bribes and initiates corrupt transactions in order to get ahead.
A systems approach would seek to find long-term disincentives for corruption. The corruptive system is existing at all levels due to bad incentive structures. This is similar to why crime exists in South African townships. The underlying problem for high crime is high poverty rates, and high youth unemployment coupled with a chronic hype culture that needs to be fed with money. Crime will always be high as long as poverty is high. Youths will always resort to crime as long as they have no other means to feed the beastly hype culture. Addressing these in the long term would drastically reduce crime.
The corruptive systems that exist in Zimbabwe need a long-term solution that plays around decent wages for public officers, sanitizing the judicial system, and reconfiguration of the societal attitude towards corruption. These solutions are general and take a long time to implement, but they work sustainably.
Another common mistake is the one committed by those who join the system. The rationale is that, “if you can't beat them join them”. This is a mistake because even when you join them you are not guaranteed to be at the winning end of the system. We can use an extreme example here, Johnny wants to join Zanu PF to enjoy the patronage benefit of being allocated farmland that is given as a reward to loyal members. What misconception does Johnny have?
Johnny overlooks that being a member alone might not be enough to be rewarded. It is not guaranteed. If everyone in Zimbabwe becomes a Zanu PF card-carrying member and we effectively become a one-party state, the patronage, and nepotism that was existing before everyone became a member will continue. If Johhny was not closely related to those in power before joining Zanu PF, then he remains exactly far away from power even after joining Zanu PF, because everybody else has done so.
It's game theory. Johnny can only benefit if, and only if, others don't follow suit. However, as long as something genuinely benefits outsiders, avalanches of outsiders will join, thus the idea that others won't follow suit is misplaced.
The fallacy herein is that you can beat the system by joining it. You cannot really beat it by joining it, you become even more subjected to it. It's the system that's wrong and needs to go. Any other gain is temporary, transient, and not sustainable.
The system is only as strong as its weakest critical component.
The body is a system. Your body is as strong as the weakest critical components. The heart, the liver, the kidneys, the lungs, and the brain are vital organs. You cannot live without them. They are critical. You can live without a hand. You can live without a leg. You can live with one kidney, but you cannot live without any kidney. I have seen people live without brains (pun intended), but they don't last long.
Your body is only as strong as these critical components. This is why health professionals emphasize that you should not smoke too much, drink too much alcohol, or consume too much fat, as these respectively damages your lungs, your liver, and your heart.
Most modern systems nowadays are complicated due to a general increase in complexity that has occurred over the years. Your car is as strong as the weakest electrical sensor. One sensor malfunction, the whole car stops working.
The same goes for these new fridges. One small malfunction on a chip at the back and the entire fridge is a write-off. The “cheapy” chip that cost $10 when they manufactured the fridge has a replacement cost of $200, because of all the dealer margins built-in from manufacture to importer, to retailer and repairmen. They tell you the fridge needs to be brought back to the manufacturer for repairs, and that's costly.
And oh, they cannot take the chip from the motherboard, they have to replace the entire motherboard, which further raises the cost. In the end, they tell you that it could be cheaper to just buy a new fridge. So, the great fridge, not yet old, but just old enough to be out of warranty, is thrown away because of a $10 chip.
The fridge as a system has been computerized and that increased the complexity. With increased complexity, the system has numerous critical parts. That increases the fragility of the system. The system is too prone to malfunction from one of the many critical points. This is why granny sticks to his 70s Mercedes Benz instead of the brand new 2021 electric car. His old mechanical car has very few critical points and they can easily be fixed in case of a breakdown.
Because our system in Zimbabwe has built-in complexity over the years, it has, by default, numerous critical components. A systems approach to disintegrating the system that we oppose would go through a process of identifying the critical components.
A failure in one of the critical components can lead to a failure in the other, and a failure of the entire system. That is how a complex system can be disintegrated. It has to be analyzed piece by piece, component by component.
Target your efforts on the single point of failure
Oftentimes, it is very difficult to effect system-wide changes by trying to change the whole system. Oftentimes it is easier to simply target specific components of the system. A change in that component could lead to a change in the overall system.
Most systems have a single point of failure due to the centralized design systems. Efforts should be targeted at the single point of failure, as that would lead to the most favorable outcome in terms of disintegrating the system. If the single point of failure is insulated, then the effort should be targeted at points that will trigger second-round reactions on the single point of failure. The approach can be taken on subsystems as well. Each subsystem usually has a single point of failure.
The heart is an obvious single point of failure, that is why heart attacks are so devastating on the human body. Systems also have hearts.
This is how we ought to approach the disintegration of the systems we oppose.