Cult of the individual: ‘Big man’ syndrome

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Thirty-six years into Independence, no one could possibly argue that this country has an effective system of checks and balances that holds officials accountable for policy failures and mismanagement of public affairs.

Emil Kee-Tui,Political Analyst

Vladimir Lenin ... The late Russian statesman coined the phrase the Cult of the Individual.

Vladimir Lenin … The late Russian statesman coined the phrase the Cult of the Individual.

If the absence of political accountability didn’t trigger Zimbabwe’s recession, allow corruption, bungle economic management, and plunge the country into turmoil, it certainly prolonged it. Most of the consequences of disconnected leadership speak eloquently enough for themselves. For those still unaware, no amount of populist rhetoric or statistical manipulation makes the last couple of decades look like anything other than a free-fall.

Unfortunately, the scourge of bad governance seems to have been thoroughly absorbed into our political culture and it is unlikely to change organically.

An unaccountable political culture is nothing new; it’s been around in almost every shape and size for the most part of human history. Vladimir Lenin of Russia gave this particular culture a name: the Cult of the Individual. In this cult, the individual is separate from the group, a singular and selfish economic unit. Selfish isn’t uncommon in modern society, co-workers not sharing doughnuts, for instance, but the cult is different because it also gives the individual an enhanced right, ability and motivation to fulfill their selfish goals.

The symptoms of our condition surround us. Syntactically, when a minister or MP takes a break from property accumulation and factionalism to hand out day-old chicks or seeds, the political bandage onto the festering, broken leg, they are not remembered as our minister or our representative, they are the minister, the official, separate and often at times unknown until handout day.

Always “them”, never “us”. In this cult they are a revered self, separated above us. And once separated above, it is next to impossible to be spoken to from below.

The cult of the individual and the emergence of the “Big Man” is a trait of societies, not just of our own, but also of all organised groups. We enshrine power and influence in individuals because it is fantastically convenient. How we remember history is a shining example of how we worship individuals. The Great Man theory states that history is made and directed by “great men” whose personal ability, charisma and, in some cases, divine mandate are solely responsible for the pattern of history.

Our memory of an entire society can be condensed into individuals. The Mfecane, for instance, was the migration of Bantu people from South Africa across most of the rest of Southern Africa. The Mfecane was the result of a myriad of socio-economic and political events that put pressure on local resources. It involved dozens of tribes and hundreds of thousands of peoples.

But history teaches that Shaka Zulu and his conquests were responsible for the Mfecane. The implication is that he alone changed the linguistic, cultural, economic and political face of almost a quarter of the African continent. It cannot be denied that Shaka was a catalyst. But without the events that preceded him, the climate he was born into and the fortuitous moments that he had no control over, it is unlikely anyone would have ever known he existed. More often than not, events far out of the control of individuals have all the influence on history.

Nevertheless, the individual is firmly planted in our minds. Take former South African president Nelson Mandela, for instance: despite his own insisting that his success would have been impossible without the contribution of his allies in the ANC, we remember Mandela as the man who steered South Africa away from a bloody civil war. We remember Winston Churchill as the man whose political and inspirational cunning won the battle of Britain; we remember Kwame Nkrumah as the father of African independence, and we remember Mikhail Gorbachev as the man who tore down the wall.

We remember them because it is easier to condense thousands of years of long and complicated history into the easy package of the individual rather than consider the labyrinthine complexity of the build-up to the event, and the factors that attributed to the event, and the reactions to the reactions, and so on and so on!

Zimbabwe’s opposition is just as guilty as the ruling party of creating demigods and superheroes out of individuals.

When we find the leaders, it is to them that we give the responsibility to inspire change, create a movement and speak on our behalf; we are only responsible to hope for that change, follow that movement and like what they say on Facebook. In truth it’s lazy and, more than that, it’s irresponsible. So long as we continue to serve the cult we must accept that a cause will die with an extended retreat and that grand leaders will not be concerned with what we think.

The move towards responsible government has to start by tearing down the image we hold of titles and leaders.

Government isn’t a supreme body of all-powerful men; electoral victory isn’t an all-expenses-paid trip to the army general’s uniform store; it isn’t the bragging rights of a grand title; and officials aren’t influential bureaucrats, whose names and acquaintanceships we can whisper to police officers to get out of roadblocks.

Government must be remembered for what it is: the civil service, a body in complete service of the people. The president and his ministers are nothing more than administrative civil servants and, in the case of Zimbabwe, whoever comes next is just the cleaner.

Kee-Tui is a Zimbabwean Economics and Global Studies student at Colby College in the United States.

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