Conspiracy mindsets – whereby a
country’s leaders and its citizens see a conspiracy behind every government, political party and failure in leadership – undermine efforts aimed at building democracy, inclusive development and lasting peace. This applies to South Africa and Africa in its entirety.
Valuable energy, public resources and time are often spent on investigating bogus conspiracies rather than tackling root causes of problems. Blaming conspiracies for self-inflicted challenges is a harmful and false belief.
A case in point of a conspiracy mindset can be attributed to the testimony of former president Jacob Zuma at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture. This is when Zuma blamed allegedly hostile Western governments, foreign intelligence agencies and apartheid spies for the spectacular failures of his presidency.
Most African independence and liberation movements and their leaders in government have blamed outsiders for conspiring against them for their own ill-advised decisions, public service failures and corruption.
Such outsiders are usually alleged to be the evil machinations of former colonial powers, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund as well as domestic “agents” of white former colonial elites.
More recently in South Africa, “white monopoly capital” or white big business have become the latest bogeyman for what are often self-inflicted problems.
So what is the source of the current conspiracy mindsets?
The strategy of many colonial and apartheid governments was to infiltrate African independence and liberation movements using spies. Many of these movements were aligned to the communist Soviet Union and China, who in return were in opposition to the US-led Western countries.
The combination of African liberation and independence movements having developed a culture of conspiracy from both fighting colonial and apartheid governments and their Soviet bloc backers, and from the continuation in many black communities of beliefs which blame failures on outside forces, has provided fertile ground for the spread of conspiracy threats.
In government, African independence and liberation movements and leaders have often blamed conspiracies for their shortcomings, government failures and corruption. Sadly, many poor and naïve citizens believe them.
Belief in conspiracies also frequently happens in societies with high levels of poverty, low levels of education and development and when societies are deeply rooted in crisis.
Rather than holding those elected into power, public officials and corporate executives accountable for their incompetence, it appears easier to place the blame solely on conspiracies. Once one blames conspiracies, it is difficult to imagine new innovative solutions to the problems.
Why would African citizens after all these years continue to be conned to accept parties and leaders blaming conspiracies for their failures? Behind a conspiracy is often a grain of truth, but cynical leaders distort, exaggerate and embellish that grain of truth.
For example, it is true that big business is dominated by white South Africans, and that their success is often built on skills, finance and infrastructure they acquired during apartheid - when blacks were excluded from market opportunities.
This fact can be easily manipulated by the unscrupulous who argue that the failure of the current government to deliver services and growth is supposedly due to the white “control” of the economy. Accepting this conspiracy means there is no need for genuinely introspecting into failure.
In some cases, citizens who have been failed by their leaders, parties and governments prefer to accept that the failures are because of evil outsiders. It is more comforting to believe in the evil machinations of “white monopoly capital” than to admit their leaders, parties and governments have failed.
The moment one admits to the failure of leaders, parties and governments one has trusted, one has to look for alternatives - not always easy in African and developing countries where being supporters of specific liberation and independence movements and leaders has become part of one’s identity, world-view and sense of hope.
Blaming conspiracies means we encourage perpetual victimhood. It means denying our agency or ability to change our personal lives, leaders and government. It also implies that societies do not self-reflect about the kind of societies they should evolve into and leaders they should elect.
Believing in conspiracies means citizens do not hold their elected and public representatives accountable for their actions which causes so much failure, collapse and pain.
In the long term, quality education which gives people critical thinking skills is crucial. Mass awareness campaigns by civil society groups to provide ordinary citizens with basic education and information regarding the behaviour of leaders, parties and government and how to hold them accountable, is critical. Getting society to read more widely is also important.
Rejecting and making criminal harmful African beliefs which encourage conspiracies is also important.
* Gumede is chairman of Democracy Works Foundation.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.