There was a time when Malawian civil society’s political and social activism was honest, vibrant and genuinely effective. In the fight for multiparty democracy in 1992, as Kamlepo Kalua MP never ceases to remind us, it was Malawian civil society and political activism that was in the forefront.Fearless Malawian activists in the Public Affairs Committee and other religious groupings, for example, agitated for change and put pressure on Dr Kamuzu Banda and Malawi Congress Party to stop human rights abuses, autocracy and repression.
When Bakili Muluzi pressed to run for the presidency for a third term, Malawian civil society could have none of it. And when Bingu wa Mutharika departed from the path of economic development to take a path of antagonism, confrontation and authoritarianism that threatened to implode into economic chaos and political pandemonium, Malawian political activists stepped up to the challenge and drew the line.
Why is it then that when Malawi needs her activists the most, at a time when rampant corruption and impunity threaten to totally consume and devastate Malawian society as we know it, Malawian activism has allowed itself to be sabotaged, compromised and incapacitated by what can only be greed, selfishness and cowardice?
Could it be that the blame lies in the fact that to our Malawian activists, the fundamental role of corruption in shaping our economic development, although sometimes recognized,is not fully understood?
In neighbouring Zambia, following intense civil society pressure, a cabinet minister, Roger Chongwe, resigned in 1995 to register his disgust at rampant corruption in government.
Social accountability as an initiative relies on civic engagement, whereby ordinary citizens participate directly or indirectly in holding power-holders to account. Because leaders most often engage in corruption with no regard to the concerns or the interests of the citizenry, such an approach must first address the cultural challenges of having a population that largely feels disinterested in calling their leaders to account to appreciate its natural responsibility.
I submit that it is in this regard that Malawian political activism is failing; for instead of focusing on the necessary civic education of the masses, Malawian social activists have concentrated on competing to be the most outspoken against the system, often with the aim that after being noticed by the administration as a nuisance, they will be approached with tokens to buy their silence and support.
In this regard,the first challenge of accountability in Malawi should perhaps be the accountability of the Civil Society and the political activists themselves. The must accept their responsibility in patriotism and morality- and understand that they are accountable to their nation regarding how they represent “we the people” and help and guide those people to hold their leaders to account when there is the prevailing of corruption and impunity.
We should not have, for instance, a solitary Billy Mayaya protesting and getting arrested on his own against blackouts or various pertinent issues when all of civil society and every Malawian is feeling the pain of corruption, electricity blackouts and water shortages.
Malawian political activists need to remember that they have a responsibility not to use the system to enrich themselves, as we have seen in recent times, but to use existing social dynamics, political realities and administrative deficiency contexts to establish an understanding of social accountability within Malawian societies that effectively will inform and enable the common citizens to call upon public officials to justify their behaviour, actions and results.
Robust social accountability initiatives must even allow for wayward public officials to be sanctioned accordingly. In this regard, Malawian civil society need to go back to their roots of integrity and engage the “bottom-to-top” approach, or the social accountability approach to the fight against corruption by engaging social movements that demand accountability through mechanisms other than traditional vertical channels (elections) and horizontal channels (legislatures and institutional checks and balances) of formal political accountability.
Additionally, in the light of the ineffectiveness of current methods, those who still have the spirit of patriotism and the residues of directional integrity need to remember that true activism consists of efforts to promote, impede, or direct social, political, economic, or environmental change.
At its heart, activism by its nature connotes conflict. Those who really consider themselves Malawian activists today cannot simply talk and post comments on their social media walls. In order to truly effect change against a government bent on perpetuating corruption with impunity, activities of Malawian activists of today must range from writing letters to newspapers or politicians, to political campaigning; from economic activism such as boycotts or preferentially patronizing businesses, to rallies, street marches, strikes, sit-ins, and hunger strikes.
The need to re-think Malawian activism is further necessitated by the fact that over the years, as poverty has continued to take root in Malawian society, social activists have sacrificed their principles at the alter of self-serving agendas and sold their integrity along with their microphones and pens to the highest bidder.
It is now clear that Malawian activism has become nothing but an extension of political dynamics, with activists being nothing but tools and implements of politicians in their eternal quest to gain and retain political power.
It is the case, for instance, that the apparently fearless activism that augured the demise of Bingu wa Mutharika was behind the scenes a political movement sponsored and orchestrated behind the scenes by seekers of political power and supremacy. It is this betrayal of the creed and principle of genuine activism that has led to an activism ran only by the financial and political expediency of the activists, driven neither by integrity nor patriotism. That activists have simply become extended limbs of political power players, often used and dumped according to political convenience is deplorable for the activists and tragic for the country.
The state of our country, the rampant corruption, the failures of the delivery of essential services, and the social injustices that are ravaging the country, call for the resurrection of the old spirit of social activism. In order to bring back that old patriotic spirit, and for Malawian activism to re-take its rightful place as a real stakeholder in Malawian development, Malawian activists need urgently to realize that these are times that call for sincere self-examination about their principles and what they stand fore. More importantly, it is important to remember that true activism is more about action than talk.
In these desperate times for Malawi, Malawian activists would do well to get inspiration from the successes of the Spanish “Indignados”- activists who took their responsibilities seriously, took to the streets and never went home until the job was done, and the political and economic governance change that they were calling for was instituted. It is important to highlight the fact that the very first protest by the Indignados was called under the motto “we are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers” and was focused on demands for more democracy, a new electoral law and an end to political corruption as well as other claims, such as banks nationalisation. Such was the dedication and commitment of the activists that protests were not called of from May 2011 until June 2012 when finally government made the required changes.
With the Malawi going through the darkest period of its economic development, it probably is the duty of every Malawian to be an activist. More important however, those who consider themselves activists must live the true meaning of their creed.