One of the first Psychology 101 lectures that I attended at university was on the theme of nature versus nurture. Our professor asked us to weigh up deterministic, biologised influences on psychological development against the social, cultural and environment factors. The debate raged. Over 25 years later and it is still ongoing. Nature: advances in neuroscience have confirmed some basic physiological truths; without sufficient nutrition and stimulation at an early age the brain will not reach optimal development. Nurture: early childhood development studies show that with the care provided by educators and the scaffolding that they enable, young minds hit their developmental milestones earlier. These children grow up to be leaders, citizens, politicians, activists, cleaners, CEOs, civil servants and, sadly, in some cases, criminals, gangsters and proponents of violence.

If nature reigns supreme, and reductionists like Stephen Dawkins and his selfish gene approach are to be believed, then a pretty bleak picture of humanity emerges. Leaders who optimise their individual selfish interests predominate and the mass of people hold little sway. Alpha males grunt on about serving the people and being “presidential”, while flagrantly violating their oaths of office and committing blatant injustices against them. A standing joke among psychologists now is that psychometric testing should be introduced for would-be presidents and governors-elect. And we are all aware of the link between true words and jest.

Humanity may have been better served if early-warning systems could have detected the flight path of some infamous leaders-cum-dictators on and off the African continent, such as Idi Amin. Our own Richard Jurgens and Luz-Helena Hanauer consider the notion of African leadership and the dearth of information on this topic. Having met many “Big Men”during his journalistic career, Francois Misser shares his experiences of having interviewed African leaders. A complex picture emerges of the relationship between personality and power as evidenced in the person of Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda.

Psychology has been predominantly equated with cognition, especially in the West, while emotions and affect have been neglected. Charles Darwin appears to have recognised this towards the end of his life, dedicating his last work to the “expression of the emotions in animals”. When it comes to government, we cannot ignore the power of feelings, both negative and positive. Emotion is used to conjure up feelings of depersonalisation, othering, hatred and xenophobia,“they are all cockroaches, eliminate them”, or otherwise feelings of patriotism and nationalistic pride, “ask not what your country can do for you…”.

Emotions feature heavily in decision-making, as research shows, totally debunking the idea of a cool, clinical and rational decision-making head. A spate of recent African elections and movements in Europe and the Americas, not least of which, BREXIT, manifest the presence of high (and hot) emotion. Olúfémi Táíwò speaks to “occident anxiety”, whereby Africans fear the West. Vaughan Dutton presents data suggesting that anxiety and depression are the most prevalent disorders in sub-Saharan Africa, while Anthony de Villiers argues that fear and intimidation are used to suppress grassroots activism in South Africa. The consequences of such practices in Zimbabwe, for example, are spelt out by Owen Gagare, where “docile” citizens have been groomed over time to be inactive and passive.

A recent field visit to Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa confirmed the severity of the psychological domain when it imposes itself on affected individuals and communities. Even the name is misleading, since it refers to a school and not to any village being targeted. Some community activists have received death threats and others murdered for their resistance to being displaced in the interest of Australian open-cast mining. The government does little to help as the minister concerned appears to side with the investors over his own people. The trauma of living in constant fear, despite constantly trying to defeat it, cannot be underestimated.

At the psycho-social level, our own research and programming work seeks to make a difference by empowering citizens and council members, and encouraging the sharing of knowledge and information. Such a change of heart and mind, when it arises, is deeply affirmative, because it indicates that stereotypes, prejudice, and ingroup-outgroup bonds of “us” and “them” can be overcome. As Ronak Gopaldas recognises, the biggest deficit lies in trust, between government and business, and might we add also between such stakeholders and NGOs/civil society.

In the case of our fieldwork, after two years we finally signed an MoU that sees GGA partner with the local municipality of Mbizana. Despite previous difficulties, with all parties having reached agreement we are able to operate our programme in partnership with the municipality. This is rather unique and kudos to the municipal manager for his attitude, for changing the course of governance and for being transformational. Many refer to this as positive psychology. It is an appealing notion that instead of staring at often negative and overwhelming factors, we highlight what’s working and build on that.

So it is that our readers are encouraged to browse the articles referred to above, along with the others that our writers and team at Africa in Fact have compiled to be carried in this edition. Our wish is to positively disrupt the head and heart space of government and shift this from an ideological, propagandistic, party first approach to one that is citizen-centred, authentic and focused on sustainabilty. As always, we hope that you enjoy the journal and note that our next issue is a special 50th edition focused on the SDGs!

ALAIN TSCHUDIN is a former Executive Director of Good Governance Africa. He is a registered psychologist with Ph.D.s in Psychology and in Ethics. He was a Swiss Academy Post-doctoral Fellow at Cambridge and oversaw the Conflict Transformation & Peace Studies Programme at UKZN for several years. He has broad research and community engagement interests and has worked for various universities in Africa and Europe, with the European Commission, with local and international NGOs, as CEO of a leadership development agency, and as lead consultant for Save the Children and UNICEF, most recently as Child Protection Assessment Coordinator for Northern Syria. Alain has an adjunct association with the International Centre of Non-violence (ICON) and the Peacebuilding Programme at the Durban University of Technology.