EVOLUTION is characterised by the steady rhythm of progress. Innovation is similarly tempered: experimentation which gradually improves a product after each version is immersed in its environment and imperfections are identified. At times, we bypass the evolutionary or scientific pace, and arrive at a product or theory that is near perfect, ahead of its time. It comes without having undergone the process of steady improvement. Nature and history teach us the consequences of these short circuits, the price paid for perfection before its time.
It is theorised that the Chinese lost out on global hegemony because they perfected the art of porcelain making too early. They made the perfect teacup which made it unnecessary for them to experiment further with vessels to hold their drink. They never drank wine, and did not see it fit to make a container for it. The Europeans, meanwhile, emerged from their dark ages in pursuit of technology that would allow them to bottle and handle their preferred beverage better. They discovered glass, and the improvement of glass resulted in lenses, which led to telescopes and microscopes.
Spectacles were produced, allowing scientists and others an extra two decades of reading and experimenting. Working glass led to vacuum tubes, the building blocks of early computing. The Chinese had no glasswork until the 19th century. The cost of the perfect porcelain cup to them translated into global leadership. An example of the consequence of tampering with timelines is that of a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. You can help it — cautiously — only when it is ready. You must allow it space to spread and dry its wings. The fight to escape the cocoon is also a way to eventual perfection — interfere with nature and you’ll find an insect with misshapen wings, unable to fly. You didn’t know any better, your intentions were clear, the struggle was too hard to watch, the urge to play saviour too strong.
Our judiciary’s independence went through its own short-circuited journey. After decades of being subjugated to the executive and military establishments, there came sudden freedom through the lawyers movement. It gave us great judges and confidence. It also gave us chiefs who were unrestrained by any transparent process of accountability or clear method of censure. It gave us chiefs who could threaten to undo the Constitution only to retain their unfettered ability to choose future members of the judiciary, as was the case when the 18th Amendment was brought before a full bench of the Supreme Court. It gave us chiefs who attempted to fix the price of sugar, police two bottles of wine, build dams and comment on the appropriate length of women’s skirts. We have in the span of a little more than a decade come full circle. A judge was accused of collusion with the very establishment the judiciary broke free from, by none less than a former prime minister.
History teaches us the consequences of short circuits.
Our politics have also been short-circuited. Popular leaders have been outed as smugglers. ‘Evidence’ of their corruption has made unprecedented runs through our judicial system. Investigation teams have been conjured up to replace the evidentiary process, all under the ‘watchful’ eyes of monitoring judges.
For some, accountability proceeds at the crack of a whip; it stands silently by for others. Cash-filled envelopes are handed out to those calling for a minister’s head, money for the fare home after the signing of a document that reeks of constitutional surrender. Prime ministerial orders are rejected.
The underlying resentment fuelling the lawyers movement was genuine. A dictator was at the end of a decade in power, undermined by his own underlings. The people were tired of real economics, lawyers were furious at losing yet another set of teeth to the real kings of the jungle.
What about the political short circuit? Historically, the ebb and flow of power in states has led to successful systems of government only when the undercurrent for change has been genuine, when coming generations, tired of old ways, choose to build their own pillars of principles higher than those constructed by their forefathers, when the change in the arc of history is felt by all as it makes its way towards justice.
Conversely, transactional alliances circumventing the evolutionary process have proved temporary. You can swim against the tide and deny the people’s will. We’ve always been treated as a people worth ignoring. But each stroke taken and each want denied adds to the pressure of a reckoning.
So, when the result of manoeuvring is ridiculed as incompetence, it must give pause to those who interfere. They must see the price of engineering perfection reflected in the misshapen result. But then, can it be said they didn’t know any better, that their intentions were clear, that the struggle was too hard to watch?
Everyone can agree on one thing: the urge to play saviour was very strong.
The writer is a lawyer.
Published in Dawn, September 29th, 2019