In Pursuit of Mediocrity

 I have lost count of how many times I have heard people lamenting as to why it is that we have come to accept that all things Zambian are of poor quality, or of very mediocre quality at best. The 'Proudly Zambian' campaign has really struggled to take root, as consumers still remain unconvinced that local products are of sufficiently high quality. I am sure we can all give examples of Zambian manufacturers who produce 'Export Quality' goods for shipping abroad and 'Inferior Quality' goods for local consumption. After all Zambians don't demand quality so why give it to them. Not satisfied with this state of affairs, when someone does actually produce or do something exceptional, rather than praise them and hold them up as good role models, they are castigated and branded as elitists and are swiftly brought down to size.

I had always wondered where this attitude came from until I was reminded by my dad what things were like growing up in Zambia in the days of the first Republic. UNIP policies had effectively hardwired mediocrity into the fabric of society.

You have to remember that one of the principle tenets of UNIPs objectives, was the eradication of the 'exploitation of Man by Man'. Thus the corner stone of governments policies were geared towards killing what Kaunda saw as 'the animal in man', which was responsible for the exploitative instincts in Humans. Self improvement, individualism and excellence were all elitist and had no place in his egalitarian vision. Elitism was a swear word that Kaunda did not want uttered, it was a negative quality that hampered human development and one which must be done away with at all costs. Initially, I am sure, UNIP's vision must have been justice and equality for all. Unfortunately the lack of any clear vision and rigorous planning, meant they were not able to translate policy into reality.

Take their education policy for example. UNIP quite rightly took the position that education should be the starting point in their fight against ignorance. In this fight, they embarked on an ambitious plan to build at least one secondary school in each district and to make primary education available to all Zambians. This was fantastic in theory, but how was it going to be achieved in practice? The first principle they followed was the offering of free education to everyone, even for those who could afford it. The second principle was that all education had to be given by Government in Government schools. The fact that UNIP had no idea of what the costs of such a system would be, as well as having little understanding of what the impact would be of taking over all the private schools in the country, the policies would ultimately destroy our education system. 

A bunch of newly built schools, the policy of Zambianisation and the taking over of all private schools, was inevitably going to mean the need for a huge number of new teachers to satisfy the demand. The Problem was that existing teacher training colleges could not churn out enough teachers to staff all the schools. Government was then forced to use pupil teachers in all parts of the country. The loss of experienced missionary teachers who were once willing to teach in missionary schools, at lower than Government salaries, now had to be replaced by poorly trained lay teachers on higher salaries. Worse still, the money that should have been spent on building new schools and teacher training colleges or paying for teaching materials, was diverted to the totally unnecessary and unproductive exercise of acquiring mission schools up and down the country.

Instead of Government working with the Missionary Societies who had been running the missionary schools successfully for seventy years, they, in their infinate wisdom, were determined to take over well run schools, so that they could clip their colonial wings. It seems that it was more important to eradicate any vestige of our colonial history, than educate the people for the obvious challenges that lay ahead for a young Zambia.

Kaunda will no doubt say that it was the desire to give every child the same kind of education, in the same kind of school, so that no one could claim to have had better, or worse, opportunities than the next person. The desire for some kind of national egalitarianism however, did not account for the fact that we are all individuals, with individual talents that cannot be lumped together and that need to be nurtured differently. In a misguided attempt to attain some common level of achievement, by necessity Kaunda had to set the common level so low, so as to be able to accommodate the least academically gifted in the country.

Ah, I hear you say, but UNIP must have had a plan to harness all the obvious talent that Zambia had on offer. After all they could take advantage of such venerable establishments as Munali Boys and Chipembi Girls. Getting into Munali Boys and being a 'Munalian', was something of pride and was synonymous with high academic achievement. The same was true for girls getting into Chipembi Secondary School. Like Undi Secondary school, set up by the colonial administration, Munali and Chipembi were fast becoming the envy of many of our African neighbours.  The Old boys and girls of these schools had carried the flag on many world fora and had acquitted themselves with distinction wherever they went. It was their achievements that would encourage other Zambians to reach greater heights and give promise of greater things to come for Zambia. But Far from being beacons and examples of what the future of our education system could be, KK, still intoxicated with the idea of egalitarianism, decided such schools as Munali and Chipembi were elitist and were undermining the fabric of society. They too had to be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. The Board of Governors was duly abolished, the science laboratories soon ceased to operate, the once lively library shrank, the swimming pool went green, the lovely school grounds were reduced to goat tracks. Multiply this picture nationwide, to include schools far less luckily endowed than Munali and you get the national picture. Despite the Governments grand plan, relatively few new schools were actually built, the quality of teaching in most of the existing schools declined and as a result the quality of education countrywide suffered.

The same thing happened to our health services, where the principle of free medical attention was the goal. KK's government duly abolished all private medical aid societies with all their assets taken over by Government, without paying any compensation to its former members. What we know today as Maina Soko Hospital in Woodlands, was built and paid for by the members of a private medical aid society. This well equipped hospital was seized by Government and turned into a Military hospital for the exclusive use of soldiers and political leaders. UNIP was creating a new class of elite, a dependent class of elites that didn't even pay their way. Indeed it was the taxpayer who was paying the political leaders medical bills in better hospitals than were available to the general public. In fact it was even commonplace for leaders to go overseas for treatment at taxpayers expense, when your average Zambian saw loved ones suffering in ill equipped and poorly staffed hospitals. Any discussion that aimed at allowing those who could afford to pay for their treatment was laughed out of hand and was derided as displaying symptoms of corrupting capitalism. It was clear that egalitarianism only extended so far, because what was good for the goose was not offered to the gander

It seems that what UNIP was really saying, was that if he couldn't treat anyone for free, because there were no drugs in the hospitals, or if he couldn't educate every child for free, due to lack of school places or teachers, then no one was going to treat or educate the Zambian people, even if they were willing to pay for it. We should all go down together with the sinking ship.  However, just like on the Titanic, Kaunda's ship also had life rafts, but also like the Titanic the SS Kaunda didn't have enough life rafts to go around. So unless you were on the Captains manifest, you had to fend for yourself in the ocean of life.

My father was very clear with his views on the subject and wrote the following in his journals:
  "...UNIP feels it must exert a price from all those whose education has been paid for by Government. UNIP demands excessive loyalty to it and unquestioning obedience to its dictates. once again we are back, like a musical rondo to the theme that only those who are party men will get the highest paid jobs, in preference to the independent minded, even though they may not be the best qualified for the job. From there it is easy to see that it is not what you know but who you know. A built-in mediocrity has developed and entrenched itself. It is normal human nature that mediocrity will appoint mediocrity for fear of being displaced. The mediocrity soon becomes the establishment...."

Ultimately the eradication of the 'exploitation of man by man' came to mean the dismantling of everything that was good about our education and health systems. This was replaced by poor quality and mediocrity, all fully endorsed and enshrined in Government policy and dictates. The leveling of the playing field was actually the dumbing down of everyone to the lowest common denominator. Legislation dismantling our education and health services, meant that mediocrity was well and truly institutionalised.

So while Kaunda may have found the gene for mediocrity and had it surgically implanting it into our psyche, we can no longer continue to use this as an excuse. Times have moved on and we must take individual responsibility for what happens next. However it is vital that we learn the lessons of the past, so as to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. If we are to keep the Genie out of the bottle, we are going to have to continue to hold our current leaders up to ever greater levels of scrutiny.

There are encouraging signs that Zambians are finally beginning to recover from the 'fug', or hangover, after decades of  intoxication from the 'Party and its Government'. 


Anonymous said…
Nice one Clive - In pursuit of mediocrity indeed. The rafts have drifted towards the "pabwato" boat now... what next.... only time will tell.

Anonymous said…
I guess you never know where or who will teach you lifes lessons...I played rugby with you at Lusaka Rugby Club, not a single day did I know that you had such deep thoughts about life!
Anonymous said…
This is very profound Mr. Shamwana, I never met your dad but my father who was fan of your fathers. Now i see in your writing what my father saw in EJS. Great staff