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Celebrating mediocrity

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I am sure it is Ferial Hafajee, editor of the South African newspaper City Press, whom I first heard using the expression “celebrating a culture of mediocrity”.

The phrase has stuck in my head ever since. It came to mind recently when I was buying some CDs in a Harare music shop (I am mad over Pengaudzoke).

The CDs were typical Zimbabwean products: a dreadful video sleeve, uniquely ugly photography, liner notes with spelling and grammatical atrocities and, of course, a flimsy CD that seemed to have been manufactured at Siya-so in Mbare.

I did not need to watch ZTV to know what the quality of the music videos would be (anyone remember the days of the so-called “A-Team” at ZTV who thrived on graphics as if their show, Mutinhimira/Ezomgido, was an episode of Star Wars?)

A South African mobile network company recently had an advertisement which asked the question: “Would you rather be in Zimbabwe or in the X Mobile Zone?”

That is how Brand Zimbabwe is perceived. Perception is reality and mediocrity in leadership and everyday life is something many of us have come to accept as a fact of our lives.

I was recently in a West African country and a couple of things confirmed the impressions I have gathered in my trips across the continent: people no longer look to the state for anything else other than a birth certificate and a passport.

If you want electricity, you buy a generator. If you want water, you buy on the street. Everyone engages in some trade of sorts to make ends meet — you can’t survive on a formal job alone (if you are one of the few to hold one).

Ghanaian author Ayi Kwei Armah has a haunting line in his famous book, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born : “The listening mind is disturbed by memories from the past. So much time has gone by, and there is still no sweetness here”.

Well, in that West African state I met one of the country’s wealthiest individuals (he had studied in the US and then came back home to set up a telecoms business).

He wanted to bring some “sweetness” into the lives of ordinary people by doing something different and unusual in Africa. He hoped to set up public libraries in each of the provincial capitals of his country.

He was not looking to the government for money or land — he would bankroll that whole project single-handedly.

By the way, this in a country where the president spends much of his time in a villa in Switzerland.

Now, library or book are not words you would associate with the thugs at Chiadzwa.

Maybe instead of the tired nationalistic jingoism take the money from the Chiadzwa diamonds and invest in our talent — or better still just pay the teachers and the lecturers so they can do a decent job.

But I always forget that mediocrity does not understand global competitiveness — it thinks only in terms of primitive accumulation and political strategies to restrict fundamental freedoms of the people.

Mediocrity does not understand vision, either. Many projects lie unfinished in our dear teapot-shaped republic.

We all remember how once upon a time each year had a supposedly galvanising motto such as “1980 — Year of the People’s Power (Gore Remasimba eVanhu)” or “1981 — Year of Transformation (Gore Reshanduko)”. The mottos petered out at some point when we all realised how empty they were. Some fresh nonsense needed to be manufactured.

Is it any wonder independence gives you the feeling of having been left hanging by a thread?

The contrast to mediocrity exists. I once worked under a director at an international cultural exchange agency who would not accept the fact that we were operating in a Harare characterised by fuel shortages, electricity outages and dodgy service providers.

When we planned major conferences his brief was clear: “I don’t care that this is Harare and that some things don’t work — I want my events delivered to the highest level of excellence.”

Dear Reader, we delivered and on many occasions. The pursuit of excellence can become a habit.

I also know of a good friend who doesn’t compromise – the dress, the shoes, the food, the drinks, you name it and she has got it.

I admire that in people – the spirit of kuzvikoshesa (pride in oneself and dignity). Chirikure Chirikure has a poem called Zvidhonze, which captures the essence of this spirit.

The game is changing, albeit rather slowly in Zimbabwe. The software that youths in Harare, Nairobi and Accra are writing for mobile phones and computers is a harbinger of what will happen in broader society.

A new generation — the beautiful ones — is being born. It is a generation that recognises the value of education, hard work and sheer determination.

Those of us in privileged positions will need to use our power and resources to ensure that this generation gets the kick-start they need and that it builds into a critical mass.

Many Africans are coming back from the Diaspora and setting up enterprises across the continent. They recognise that Africa is the next growth frontier.

My own project, Zimbabwe in Pictures, is expanding its activities and we are joining forces with dynamic web “imagineers” like Fungai Tichawangana of zimbojam.com. Together with many other people, we will be cooking up a storm in 2011.

Pasi ne (Down with) mediocrity.

Chris Kabwato is the publisher of www.zimbabweinpictures.com

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