In Summary
  • This country, and much of the continent, is in the grip of a cargo cult. It is now an article of faith that grand infrastructure is the fairy ship that will deliver all the goodies we have ever dreamed of possessing. What else are we to make of this?:
  • The underperformance of our railway service has nothing to do with the gauge of the track. Neither is it on account of the low speed or load capacity. The single most important reason for its underperformance is lack of trains.
  • Over the last decade, the economy has expanded by about 60 per cent. Electricity consumption has increased by about the same. These figures are based on the current GDP, which we expect to be revised upwards shortly.

During World War Two, the erstwhile isolated, poor South Pacific Islanders of Vanuatu (then known as New Herbrides) enjoyed a brief episode of prosperity.

This was on account of the Western Allies establishing military bases there.

With the bases came bounty beyond belief, as well as jobs. Ships and aircraft brought supplies regularly. Western goods became commonplace.

Then, as suddenly as it appeared, the prosperity vanished. The war had ended. The soldiers left. The ships and aircraft stopped coming.

This episode gave rise to the most famous of what anthropologists call cargo cults—religions that have sometimes emerged when hitherto isolated people are suddenly exposed to western consumer culture.

Charismatic religious entrepreneurs took to promising the villagers that they could restore the flow of cargo, which they claimed was actually sent to them by their ancestors.

They devised cargo summoning rituals that involved imitating military practices such as marching and building symbolic life-size replicas of aircraft, control towers and even airstrips.

WEALTH AND PROSPERITY

The cargo did not come, and many of the cults soon died out. The most prominent survivor is the John Frum movement practised in the island of Tanna.

Its adherents believe that John Frum, a messianic figure usually depicted as an American soldier, will return and bring back the wealth and prosperity of the good old days.

Asked by a western reporter how the movement has survived so long, one of its leaders quipped: “We’ve only been waiting for our prophet for only 60 years. You’ve been waiting for 2000.”

The term cargo cult has become a metaphor for misguided modernisation ventures that confuse form for substance. There is no shortage of such delusions in recent history, perhaps none more deluded than Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward.

Mao believed that industrialisation could be speeded up by producing more grain and steel, so the Chinese government seized all the resources it could marshal to produce them.

Agriculture was collective by force. The government set a target of doubling steel production within a year and overtaking Britain’s steel production in 15 years.

Villagers were instructed to set up backyard furnaces to produce iron. People’s pots, pans and other metal possessions were seized to provide scrap metal for the furnaces to meet production quotas. Trees were decimated and even furniture burned to fuel the furnaces. It did not work, but it claimed between 20 and 40 million lives.

In his irreverent classic The Trouble with Nigeria, Chinua Achebe attributes underdevelopment to a cargo cult mentality of ruling elites.

“One of the commonest manifestations of under-development is a tendency among the ruling elite to live in a world of make-believe and unrealistic expectations. This is the cargo cult mentality that anthropologists sometimes speak about — a belief by backward people that someday, without any exertion whatsoever on their own part, a fairy ship will dock in their harbour laden with every goody they have always dreamed of possessing,” he wrote.

This country, and much of the continent, is in the grip of a cargo cult. It is now an article of faith that grand infrastructure is the fairy ship that will deliver all the goodies we have ever dreamed of possessing. What else are we to make of this?:

“Bullet trains flashing from capital to capital in just a few minutes. Happy passengers waving goodbye to their relatives on the platform… The vision is one of techno-modernity: even you Africans can jump into the modern world. Fast passenger trains! Even fast goods trains!”

You will probably have guessed correctly what this is about, but I doubt very much whether you can guess where the quote is from. It is not from a letter to the editor of one of those weekly tabloids.

BURDEN OF PROOF

It is an excerpt from the report of the Parliamentary Transport Committee in defence of the standard gauge railway. I will leave it to you to contemplate what evidence and analysis the committee considered to arrive at this conclusion, although perhaps the better question would be what herbal product they had with their lunch.

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