Living with collapse
A long time ago, a British Professor visiting Zimbabwe goggled at our 15% inflation rate and said, “How do you cope?’
Twenty years later, 15% seemed like heaven. And coping had turned into a lifestyle. Oddly though, you can still attend an HRM conference in Harare infinitely more sophisticated than you will in London. Lunch might be peculiar but ideas continue.
The power might go off repeatedly but a Zimbabwean firm has rolled out a 3G network. Living in the UK, I have copper cables that were replaced twenty years ago in Harare and my mobile reception is so dodgy that I can’t use it for internet.
Running away from collapse
I left Zimbabwe and came ultimately to UK because I didn’t want to cope with those circumstances. I had lived through Smith’s UDI and figured that “I had already done” war and sanctions. It was time for alternative experiences.
A psychological model of collective responses to despair
Around six months before I left Zimbabwe, just after the Presidential elections, I tried to make a psychological model of what would happen. I figured that everyone would make up their minds what they were going to do. Then they would test their plan. And after 6 months they would re-evaluate.
Of course, we had a definitive unambiguous event that marked a cross-roads. Mostly we don’t have such a call for decisiveness and we procrastinate.
Then we were surrounded by people making tough decisions but amiably accepting that we differed in our needs and values and might go our separate ways.
And we knew we were jumping out into the unknown. We might find our new lives hostile but few of us left a path to return preferring rather to “shake the dust from their feet and not look back”.
The Zimbabwean diaspora and the Zimbabwean survival
So 3-4 million people left Zimbabwe. I got on a plane. Others walked and with no exaggeration, dodged border guards, swam across a river infested with crocodiles, cut their way through fences and threw themselves on the streets of cities larger than anything they had ever seen before.
But 10-11 million people stayed. They were the old, the young, the sick and the infirm. They were those who stayed to look after the old, the young, the sick and the infirm. They were also those who had fought for the liberation of Zimbabwe and were continuing in their quest. They were those who lived “outside” last time around and “had done that” and now took the alternative route. And there were the energetic and entrepreneurial who make a go of anything.
Zimbabwe has suffered. There is no doubt. It is uncomfortable being there. But it has survived. And it is this survival that I want to write about.
People don’t curl up and die because the economists and politicians and pundits say they should. They pursue their ends as they see them. They experiment and revise. They keep going.
So Zimbabwe didn’t die. The currency shattered all records for inflation and it remained the currency of choice long after economists said it would disappear. It has gone now but probably more because of pressure on the German government by activists made printing it more difficult.
Simply, action matters; not theory and not prediction. People will not stop living just because we think we wouldn’t be bothered in their shoes.
African universities don’t die either
I’ll make this point again using another story.
A decade ago, I was part of a team reviewing the staffing situation in African universities for World Bank. Briefly, the a priori thesis was that Africa suffered a brain drain. Coopted belatedly on to the team, when I was briefed, I burst out laughing. “You can’t get rid of us,” I guffawed.
So how do universities run when they have bullet holes in the walls (one in our sample did) and havelittle money to pay academics?
Yes, universities suffer from “not on seat”, a Nigerian expression that someone came in, left his jacket and went out to do his own business. But despite one university paying its staff the equivalent of one chicken a month, staff kept pitching up, kept teaching, kept examining. They keep doing what they do. I know it sounds improbable, but it is your theory that is wrong; not the world!
But maybe Western economies began to die
Today I came across another story in Global Guerillas that illustrates the point again.
Pick up any HRM textbook in UK, Australia or NZ, and it is all about smashing the unions. Thatcherism was a dramatic struggle against labour power. And Thatcherism won. It liberated the economy from the tyranny of unions!
That maybe so but smashing the “working classes”, or the middle classes as they are called in the USA, also concentrated economic surplus in the hands of corporates. And we see the results now. Oh, you might have drifted off when I put it like this. Read on.
People don’t sit on their hands just because you told them they were worth nothing. They carry on living their lives. Instead of achieving their life goals by making more money by being more productive, they continued achieving their life goals and put their energies into other schemes – like second houses or just flipping their first. The goals stay. The energy to progress is diverted.
We will not put our lives on hold because you want us to. It simply doesn’t work like that.
A good system provides opportunities for us to achieve our own goals within a collective mutually beneficial framework. We need a system where each of us can see a promotion on the horizon and has access to learning experiences and training that allows us to seek promotion. As soon as the system says “nothing for you here”, we will divert our attention elsewhere but we won’t do nothing. Don’t say this is not possible; this is called HRM. And don’t laugh. Who hired the HR Manager you have?
Where will individuals put their energy in the UK now?
In a country as big and diverse as the UK, it can be hard to see what might happen next. The choices are not obvious.
Certainly, at an individual level, the prize will go to those who envisage positive goals in depressing circumstances and who continue seeing opportunity while those around them become panicky and depressed. But we will each do what makes sense to us at the moment that we do it.
At a collective level, it seems to me that we really must strengthen what Britain called the working classes. And the best way to do that is for people who have power to limit themselves.
Instead of running around asking for 25%-30% indicative cuts, Ministers should be talking to everyone with power or unusually high incomes (and I include the unions and the local drug barons). Ask them rather, what can you do to make the middle level guys better off. What can you do to free them up from worrying about housing and heating, food and chidren’s clothing? What can you do to help them feel secure about their future (to aged 90) and their children’s future and prospects?
Those with power and resources must settle down those who will otherwise divert their energy where they must – looking after me and my own. And the politicians must lead.
Instead of indicative cuts, come back to us with indicative solutions. Look us in the eye when you announce them. If our eyes light up, you are on to something. If we howl with laughter, deliver a sharp smack to your powerful mates.