Merit is our only antidote


Most African countries since independence from colonialism have failed to achieve high growth levels, industrialise to developed country levels and achieve peace because they did not make merit the guiding principle for society.

African countries since the end of colonialism have mostly been patronage-based, where patronage within political parties, government and civil society is bestowed not merit, but on ethnic, factional and family closeness. Based society on patronage have left a legacy of continued poverty, inequality and unemployment; and endemic corruption, forced migration and civil wars.

In more merit-based country cultures “everyone has an equal chance to advance and obtain rewards based on their individual merits and efforts, regardless of their gender, race, class, or other non-merit factors”. Because of the lack of merit, opportunism, became the guiding principle for political party and government appointments, securing government contracts and development projects.

Opportunistic societies are not based on fairness. Hard work is not rewarded. Equal opportunities to advance in society are limited. People do not reach their full potential. Wide-spread social mobility is difficult. It disincentives people to give their best. It results incompetence becoming the societal norm.

In these African societies one advanced overwhelmingly through who you know, who you are related to and who you buttering up to. A child, not matter how talented, unless connected to the right ethnic group, his or her family connected to the leader or the governing party elite, they will not advance. Similarly, an entrepreneur who is not connected will find it hard to secure state funding, contracts or licences. The person with the best development, technology or policy ideas will not get any official hearing for them, if they are not connected.

Opportunists advance through praise-singing the leader, pushing down talented rivals or steal their ideas, and use their “connections” to leaders to serve as middle-men and women to secure government contracts. They often mimic the language of the leader, are yes-men and women and second guess the intentions, and then carry out what they believe the leader would want, to curry favour.

Opportunists do not add value. They are value destroyers. They rarely come up with innovative ideas. They stamp out innovative ideas. They see talented individuals as deadly competitors and would intentionally bring them down. This means that opportunistic societies undermine the development of entrepreneurship and stifle innovation, so crucial for development. It is often wrongly believed that opportunism is entrepreneurship. Opportunism destroy entrepreneurship.

Leaders, governing parties and governments in opportunistic societies would rarely invest in quality education – because a better educated society reduces opportunism, by expanding individual’s ability to seek out opportunities outside the patronage state, party and ethnic group. If opportunism is the creed at national political, social and cultural levels, it will also be replicated in the country’s organisations and institutions.

Traditional, political and social patriarchy encourages opportunistic, patronage and clientalistic-orientated societies as they make individual advancement dependent on the favour of the traditional king, leader and ethnic origin or “higher” status.

In opportunistic African societies development funds, policies and projects will be captured by the well-connected – never to achieve their intended development objectives. Redistribution, empowerment and affirmative action strategies in such societies will also always be captured, with the opportunists benefiting the most.

Opportunistic societies discourages new ideas, innovation and entrepreneurship. Within organisational settings, opportunists, can suck the oxygen out of organisations, when they steal the ideas of others, suppress career prospects of talent and hardworking staff, and surround themselves with yes-mean and women incompetents.

Almost all of the great economic transformations where developing countries had jumped from chronic poverty, underdevelopment and disease, to prosperous industrial country status has been based on these countries introducing meritocracy in the public service, business and civil society. The difference between African developing countries which have failed and the developing countries which have successfully industrialised lays to a large extent on whether countries have introduced merit into their public cultures or allowed opportunism to be the dominant creed.

A 2015 United Nations Report argues that “meritocracy reinforces the notion of equality and competence as it rejects patronage, nepotism, corruption, and incompetence”.

Opportunistic societies, unless transformed into merit-based ones, will spiral into towards deindustrialisation, more poverty and eventually violence. No amount of new policies, new funding or new infrastructure projects will ever be fully successfully implemented, because incompetent opportunists will always take over and money will be siphoned off.

South Africa is in danger of becoming a society where being “connected”, whether to the right connected political faction, social or business circle, or embellishing oneself in the connected circles, has become the guiding principle for advancement.

Many policies, including BEE, affirmative action and preferential procurement have in many cases been captured by opportunists, meaning that in reality only a few select benefit, while the vast majority of genuine would-be beneficiaries are left out. The only antidode to the slide to an opportunistic society, is inclusive, honest and merit-based governance.

William Gumede is Chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation ( and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg).