9 August 2012

Zimbabwe: National Boundaries Fast Disappearing

The concept of nationhood, as old as civilisation itself, arose from the basic human need for companionship and the desire to associate with those like us.

It has taken many forms, and while initially nations were defined by tribe, kinspersons and common ancestry, this has shifted and nations are now primarily defined by geographic borders, as opposed to tribes.

In Africa, however, nationhood has been shaped more by arbitrary boundaries drawn out by European colonisers towards the end of the 19th Century than by traditional considerations.

While we may feel that Zimbabwe has been 'Zimbabwe' since time immemorial, the fact is it was a construct made entirely to serve European interests less than 130 years ago, and had no relationship to our cultures, common ancestry or any other normal determinant of nationhood.

Little wonder, then, that we have simmering residual tribal tensions within our boundaries.

The modern definition of nationhood has to a large extent also encompassed the ring-fencing and safeguarding of economic interests, apart from the territorial aspect.

Politics, which is the primary expression of nationhood, has become predominated by economic performance, and every political party's survival now is linked directly to its ability to deliver widespread economic prosperity to its people.

This economic aspect of nationhood has brought about some interesting changes which I believe will see the whole concept of geographic national boundaries fade away within the next century, for reasons to be elaborated.

Economic development has gone hand-in-hand with the advancement of technology, and technology's primary aim is to make humans' lives easier and more enjoyable, and to expand our realm of knowledge.

Undoubtedly the most influential technology ever invented was the computer, and it has changed form and function rapidly and unexpectedly such that now most things are driven by this marvel.

In fact, the advent of the computer was so profound that many refer to the times that we live in as the "information age". Development of the internet, which started in the 1950s but only became available for public use as recently as twenty years ago perhaps started the process of the dismantling of national borders which now is silently but steadily gaining pace.

The internet, a borderless construct that brings together all peoples of the world, has grown to become the primary means of communication and commercial interaction.

Up until a few years ago, the major use of the internet was in the hosting of commercial websites, as well as the provision of information. The advent of social media networking since then has brought on a new dimension to the internet in terms of interpersonal global communication.

One is no longer restricted by geography when it comes to searching for an expert in a particular industry, recruiting or even just seeking companionship.

When social networking first came onto the scene, it was perceived as a fancy way to get in touch with friends and relatives and to find out what everyone was doing. Sites like Facebook and Twitter were primarily de-signed with this aspect in mind.

For business executives, it was viewed as a nuisance and a waste of productive time and corporate resources. LinkedIn, which was set up primarily as a recruitment website but which has developed into a vast business networking platform, was perhaps one of the first indication that social media could have commercial value beyond just the placement of adverts.

Social networks have since become a powerful force for change, to the extent that regimes have been changed and others are in turmoil at the moment.

They have led to the usurping of traditional power models in that ordinary people are now able to broadcast messages which, if they have buy-in, will circumvent the entire planet in hours.

They have also enabled people across borders to come together and fight causes regardless of geographical location.

This has extended to the realm of economic activity. Economic activity and ideas are no longer confined to people within particular geographies.

Groups on all social media sites encompass many nationalities, and the whole concept of geographical separation is gradually losing relevance amongst ordinary people.

While politicians are still obsessed with this idea for obvious selfish reasons, even they are moving in the direction of borderless statehood.

Common monetary areas, regional blocs and rationalisation of tariff structures all point to seamless integration in the near future.

The other major area of course has been the improvement in transport and the reduction in its cost. This has also been a result of the technological advancement drive.

Teleportation, which allows for the instantaneous transfer of matter from one point to another may still be centuries away, but current transport modes allow one to physically go from one point to another on the globe without too much inconvenience and in ever-reducing time.

Communication technologies which now make conference and video calling commonplace also obviate the need for meetings in person, and improve the ability to interact across geographic boundaries.

We recently had the case of a man challenging the rationale for the compulsory acquisition of listeners' licenses, and he cited the fact that there are so many competing media alternatives from both inside and outside the country now available, and so many gadgets that are capable of processing the same radio and television signals as a defense.

The outcome of this case will be interesting if it is not influenced by non-relevant ulterior considerations, but it is a clear indication of the way in which traditional "national" structures are having the rug swept from under their feet.

When all is said and done, individual aspirations are the same, regardless of race, tribe, nation, colour and of course, sex. Everyone wants to be happy, and to pursue happiness and success in whatever it is they are doing.

People also want to be free to do as they please, provided what they do does not interfere with another person's freedom. This in itself means that the world is literally one big nation, despite the historical fragmentations that have hitherto fore meant divisions along the above-stated lines.

The concept of national boundaries has always been in flux, but has never been under the strong challenge that technological advan-cements now present.

In fact, political systems and the quasi-feudal system of national boundaries are probably the only things that have lagged behind as the rest of the world has advanced. Encompassing global thinking is no longer a luxury, but a necessity, and uncompetitive practices have no place in this new world order.

As Zimbabweans, we need to embrace this fact fast and ensure we are competitive enough to be relevant in a borderless world.

Farai Mutambanengwe is the founding Chairman of the SME Association of Zimbabwe, and Managing Director of Adway Financial Services (Pvt) Ltd.

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