In one of the local dailies this past week, a cartoonist depicted two leaders, one from the government side and the other from the opposition, sipping cocktails on a beach, chilling with no care in the world while besides them newspaper headlines glared loudly the popular displeasure with their corruption and lack of accountability. He was on point. To a large extent, mere demonstrations of popular displeasure with how our leaders are leading the country no longer provoke them into correcting their ways. It is probably a stark indictment then on the proposed protests apparently set for 27th April that are apparently being steered forward by Malawian civil society and various activist groups.
It never ceases to amaze me that many of my fellow citizens assume that holding politicians accountable for their actions isn’t too difficult in a representative democracy that values civic engagement; that it is simply a matter of protesting for a day whatever injustice of misbehaviour is on the menu at any given time. The hard truth is that in Malawi today, we’re faced with a political process often more catered to moneyed interests than the will of the people. This has led many Malawians to become simply slacktivists — people who believe they’re making change by participating in temporary, feel-good measures (like sharing links or firing off on social media) that don’t result in real policy or behavioural change in our politicians.
But perhaps slacktivism is on the rise because as I pointed out last week, many people of my generation are too selfish to take any real political causes too personally and seriously? We seem not to realise, however, that firing off on social media and making various noises without an action plan do not bring any real change. Need I remind us that despite weeks of heavy protest on social media and elsewhere on the government’s intention to shoot down the 50+1 bill, the bill was still shot down?
The MK4 Billion revelations that followed this matter indicate that it can no longer be a secret that many of our legislators have a knack for voting for their own interests instead of catering to the voice of the people.
But activism, for me, must be the will to change things, not simply protest. The protest should simply be one of the ways to accomplish that objective. Activism is the will to point out when things are wrong; to believe in something so much that you can put yourself out for it, to engage, to stay engaged, to care about the folks around you and what is happening to the folks around you, to see yourself as part of a larger system, a larger kind of ecosystem of humans and thoughts and feelings and institutions. As an activist, I must see myself as not only a member but also a contributor to the kind of governance framework that can bring real socio-economic change to this country.
My fundamental problem, then, is that protests alone as a way of giving action to my activism simply aren’t working. One of the main problems with contemporary activism is that we’ve really lowered our horizon of possibility. We’ve really changed what we think success is. I look at the 18th, 19th, 20th centuries and ask myself, what did success mean as a political activist? The answer is that it meant a political revolutionary. It meant the Russian revolution, the Chinese revolution, or the American Revolution. Taking control of one’s government, changing the way power functions.
It seems to me that success now has become something like getting a lot of people to like and read my Facebook post. Or simply have a headline in the morning that I am against something. We protest and protest but we consistently fail to change how power functions. But wasn’t this supposed to be the ultimate goal? In my view, this is an indictment of contemporary activism. We march and protest but ultimately, it doesn’t work. I think it’s really important as an activist to constantly learn from one’s past failures. It seems to me that a lot of Malawian activists don’t want to learn from protests of the past.
When I read headlines of planned demonstrations, they’re repeating the same mistake over and over and over again. We have become obsessed with the spectacle of street protests, and we have started to ignore the reality that we are getting no closer to power.
I am convinced that if we really want Malawi to change from a country where Finance ministers can simply ignore procedures when dishing out millions to favourite parliamentarians, or where procurement rules are never followed and corruption is the order of the day, then our activism must go beyond protests. So what can you do? Here is what I suggest:
Small steps to get started in activism
If you have 5 minutes… Have a conversation with a friend about an inequality you recognize in society. This is a quick and easy way to express you concerns about what is happening, and brainstorm potential solutions.
If you have 30 minutes… Write a letter to your elected officials or create a petition. Warn them that they will not be returned to parliament at the next election if they do not heed the concerns. Though it’s not often headline-making, it is possible to do activist work within the existing systems in your community.
Many elected officials are accessible via email or phone, and can be swayed by pressure from their constituents. Additionally, these techniques have proven to be valuable mobilization strategies and help to create a list of people who care about the same issues, whom you can promote for the next elections.
If you have an afternoon… Organize or attend a meeting for a group you are passionate about. This is especially effective in universities, where in the past, on-campus groups have been responsible for organizing movements advocating for various rights, political action, and accountability.
If you have a week… Mobilize a group of people and occupy the offices of your MP or your DC for the whole week, promise never to go away until a solid solution is enacted regarding your concerns. In places near government headquarters, an occupy movement can actually occupy the office premises of whoever is directly responsible for the matter under protest.
The slacktivism that has currently become our comfort zone and our way of convincing ourselves that we are at least doing something to change the country will not really bring the required change. On the other hand, I believe it is very possible for activists to build a social movement that would win elections in many, many rural communities very quickly or even nationally at the presidential level; much more quickly than anyone’s ever seen. I think that it is conceivable that we could wake up and we could have activists controlling literally the whole governance framework in a way that we’ve never seen before.
With that power, we’d have the sovereignty to pass legislation that really fundamentally affects people’s lives.