Communalism ‒ a great place to be!
There is an ageless tale of a productivity enthusiast who owns a donkey. He determines that if he feeds the donkey a little less every day and works the donkey a little harder, a point will be reached where the donkey is working at optimum whilst he feeds the donkey nothing. Inevitably, he succeeds, but at the optimal point of productivity, the donkey collapses and dies.
In the indigenous South American Quechua language, the tale of the donkey depicts the exact opposite of Ayni, a concept describing reciprocity combined with sustainability. The one is not possible without the other; they are interdependent. If there is not a reciprocal exchange of value or values, the relationship cannot ultimately survive. Think of those successful enterprises you support and those which are in decline or have disappeared.
Rural Lalibela in Ethiopia is a densely populated town in an impoverished part of Africa. Despite dire poverty, lack of infrastructure and an average per capita income less than one-third of South Africa's, rural Ethiopians appear contented. They are also conservative and hard-working. A powerful connection to community, faith and family life forms the nucleus of a stable and gentle populace.
Contrasting with international trends towards urbanisation, some 85% of the Ethiopian population remains rural, and engages in pastoral subsistence farming and commerce. Micro enterprises are operated from tin shacks, small courtyards and tiny huts constructed from clay, stone or local vegetation. With just a short walk along muddy streets, one can obtain all you need to build and furnish a home.
Coffee ceremonies, where people sit and laugh and gos- sip are tinged with wafting incense. News is currency and sharing views celebrates the values of reciprocity. For centuries, these folk have practiced the same rituals. The village people are quite ingenious. Plastic, tin, glass and paper are considered valuable commodities – recycling of traditional ‘ Western’ trash is widely practised and comprises a significant part of village income. As a result, the untarred roads and densely packed settlements are free of litter, almost pristine. Lalibela is similar to countless communities across a vast landscape. If it can be reconditioned, recycled or shared with those in need, nothing goes to waste. People appear well-nourished and healthy; in stark contrast to the media depiction of Ethiopia as a country of perpetual drought, malnutrition and strife. Good news travels slowly.
What is the difference which makes the difference in Ethiopia? Except for the 16-year one-party Marxist / Communist rule of Mengistu Mariam (following the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974), Ethiopia has experienced a system of free-enterprise and entrenched property rights. Individuals or families own the means of production and the means to produce. It may be a small piece of land, some livestock and a few donkeys, but this form of micro-level private enterprise is about as close to perfect Capitalism as one can get.
Conversely, on a macrolevel, the Ethiopian state effectively controls the banking system, communications and national airline. When not faced with electricity blackouts, it monopolises power supply and energy generation. The state also oversees the tedious foreign currency shortages and sub-standard public health and education system – as one would expect from an efficient Socialist state.
Yet, from a low base, over the past decade, Ethiopia has experienced unprecedented economic growth. With the Renaissance hydro-electric power scheme drawing riches from the Blue Nile and many wind and solar power plants under construction, Ethiopia will not only be self-sufficient in renewable energy production, but will be able to power almost half of the Northern African continent by 2022. This is a society on the ascent.
Yet South Africa, with abundant technological and infrastructure capacity, similar economic policies and an almost identical economic model to that of Ethiopia is unable to provide an economic growth rate which even keeps up with its population growth.
There are two evident differences.
The first is an official zero corruption tolerance policy. Although crime and corruption are endemic to any system where man seeks power over others, corruption in Ethiopia is well-managed. In 1996, one of the first acts of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was to have his predecessor (and very good friend) charged and jailed for corruption. Sustainability is possible; just keep your insides clean and functioning as they were designed. Zero tolerance for corruption can be a society’s best friend. And, with best friends like these, who needs enemas...
The second difference is tolerance for difference and an almost complete rever- ence for family and local community. Family life, authentic communication and spending time together are sacrosanct. Elders are respected and valued for their wisdom and past contribution. And discipline for the traditional institutions of religion, caring for animals, learning and sharing are nurtured from a young age.
Can Socialism and Capitalism work hand-in-hand? At their worst forms of social engineering, Socialism means you die of starvation, and capitalism means you die of obesity. Yet Ethiopia seems to create an environment which allows both systems to mesh together. It is not a starving society, nor a society dying from obesity; just one which is spiritually and pragmatically well nourished.
One may find many towns in South Africa with an energy and potential environment very similar to that of rural Ethiopia. Grahamstown is one of those towns; neither particularly capitalist nor socialist, but brimming with gossip, sharing values and the magic of community. This is Ayni. This is sustainability.
As one enters town, bright signs proclaim a future vision. Perhaps Grahamstown may become that Great Place To Be. But it is up to honest citizens championing the values of family, faith and community to make it so. • Ron Weissenberg is an international citizen and Grahamstown resident who started his first business at age
7. He is a Certified Director (SA) and mentors people and