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

their en­ter­prises.

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