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Africa 2011: Don’t mix your business in my business – lessons from Pakistan

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Post-colonial Africa has universally accepted to be integrated into a civilisation that is shaped and defined by voluntary contracts between willing participants.

Even those that lead and participate in economic freedom marches are and must be acutely aware that human civilisation has not been able to produce precedents in which wealth is created merely by marching from point A to B and drafting and delivering one petition or another.

Poverty is a condition that regrettably many human beings find themselves and this is not unique to Africa.

The poor will not simply shake off poverty by targeting the rich and powerful, but need to appreciate that economic freedom is not something you can buy or use violence, propaganda and slogans to realise.

Over the last 11 weeks, I have attempted to add an African voice and context to the 12 sayings of the late Butch Lewis, the music and boxing promoter who used to describe his business as the “peoples’ business”, and today, I will focus on his last but important observation that one lesson in life is not to mix one’s business in other peoples’ business.

It is easy to measure one’s condition in relation to others forgetting that effort can produce predictable and sustainable consequences.

How many of us have attempted to blame Africa’s condition on imperialism or others who have acquired wealth on the back of voluntary contracts and effort?

Many of Africa’s educated, but financially illiterate citizens have not understood the rules of the civilisation whose foundational principle is that there is nothing inevitable in life and efforts to socially engineer outcomes are counter productive.

In life we all are engaged at different levels in a constant battle against the ravages of poverty.

On October 25 2011 against a background of the leaderless global movement for a just and equal society, the world learned with shock that Raja Khan, a father of two from Naushehro Feroz in Sindh, set himself on fire in front of Parliament House and died later at the hospital.

He chose to take his life because in his own words he was fed up with his financial condition. He then requested the government to take care of his family in the mistaken belief that governments are set up to assume the obligations that citizens must and should assume for themselves.

In fact Khan specifically requested the President of Pakistan to look after his family.

The message was stark and the suicide attracted global attention principally because it was significant in that it offers commentary on the state of the nation after 64 years of post-colonial existence.

It is easy to take this action by a single individual out of context.

Here was an honest man who gave up on life because all his pursuits to take care of himself and his family could not produce the desired results.
The poor generally are exposed to a life in which they cannot participate in any contracts from which income or goods are exchanged.

Who should the poor blame for their condition?

We all want a fair and transparent world in which wealth, however generated, must be distributed equitably and yet the process of creating wealth is itself a complex and painful enterprise.

Is it fair to expect the head of state to be super human and the person to whom the poor can and should look to for salvation?

A head of state is just another person of flesh whose worldview is shaped and informed by the people who have access to him or her.

It is suicidal to mix one’s condition with that of another let alone the president of a country.

A president like any human being sees his duty first to himself and his circle that would typically include family and friends. Enemies or political rivalries will not feature in the equation.

The poor are far remote from the corridors of poor to influence the way president thinks or behaves.

What is remarkable is that most state actors behave as if they really care about the condition of the poor and yet in practice they are motivated by the pursuit of personal interests.

Khan is now dead and the condition that he left his family in will likely worsen.

The office of the President is not structured to deal with retail issues, but address global institutional and capacity issues.

We often expect the President to have all the answers to the burning issues of our time.
Regrettably, a human mind has absorption challenges.

One can only absorb so much information and we must accept that the real impact of poverty is felt only by those exposed to it and less by those that talk and theorise about it.

Africa just like Pakistan, will not change merely because the victims of poverty decide to withdraw their lives from the theatre of life, but by investing in the change that we want to see.

One fundamental change that must take place is the notion that our future is someone else’s business.
We can imagine a world in which the rich who may have acquired their wealth through service or other means, give it up to the less privileged, but the reality of life informs us that people will only do what is in their best interests.

The danger always exists that the poor will want to impose their business into the business of those they think are better off than them.

However, life is really about negotiating with others and even the poor are compelled to negotiate with the people they elect into state offices.

Once elected, state actors cease to represent the people who may have elected them into office, but the state from which they derive income.

In a speech at the University of Washington, Bill Gates, one of the richest persons of our generation, is reported to have given advice to a questioner: “I did not start out with a dream of being super-rich, but just followed my passion for computers.”

Bill never set out to engage in a war against poverty or embarked on an economic freedom march, but he pursued his passion and the rest is history.

He said something profound that Khan ought to have listened to before giving up on life: “I think most people who have done well have just found something they are nuts about doing. Then they figure out a system to hire their friends (not enemies) to do it with them. If it’s an area of great impact, then sometimes you get financial independence.”

We complain about corruption and nepotism and yet in real life, successful people typically surround themselves with like-minded people.

Even politically powerful people have not found a mechanism to discriminate in favour of enemies.

We are constantly reminded that contracts are only possible between voluntary contracts and third party players have no business poking their noses into the private business of others.

In the case of Gates, he owes his fortune to the millions of users of the software his company developed and not to the thousands of angry people.

If Microsoft, for instance, were to be closed, the people who will suffer are users of the products and not state actors who often appropriate the role of protector to themselves.

The real protection that people who find themselves in Khan’s predicament is to create an environment in which risk takers are rewarded so that those who want to scale the heights can know what they need to do.

Economic freedom and prosperity are linked and our job is to strike a balance without creating a dependency syndrome where the poor are armed with instruments of hate and confusion.

Mutumwa Mawere is a businessman based in South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

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