The Africa correspondent for Talk Radio 702 referred to Malawians as “gentle people” in expressing his surprise that they took to the streets on Wednesday July 20 in protest against their president.
The other day, I circulated an email to friends on widely held stereotypes of different societies. The article was written by Rose Arce, a senior producer at CNN who is almost always mistaken as her own daughter’s maid because she is Hispanic.
Her daughter, Luna, “ is much fairer than I am and has dead straight hair that becomes a soft brown in the sun. I have dark curly hair like almost everyone in her extended family.”
Rose also writes: “I’ve been mistaken for a babysitter all my life — or a waitress, sales clerk, even the occasional cleaning lady — but it’s a whole new experience to have it happen in front of my child.”
Such stereotypes are common worldwide and I have written before, in a different context, how almost every person I meet in South Africa, tells me their maid is Zimbabwean, “so gentle, educated and hard-working!”
Not a bad stereotype (the educated/hard-working/gentle bit), but I understood the correspondent’s surprise that Malawians took to the streets and that the protests turned violent.
They accuse their president of mismanaging the economy and taking a dictatorial turn after starting off well in 2004 when he successfully revived the country’s agricultural industry.
It is clear that education alone is not enough. NewsDay reported last week that Bingu Wa Mutharika is “a former World Bank economist, who was has presided over six years of high-paced but aid-funded economic growth”.
I have written before about how shared values are the answer to African countries’ quest for sustainable growth and prosperity.
Our much-acclaimed ubuntu/hunhu (humanness) seems to be good enough for funerals and weddings for, with the best will in the world, we fail miserably when it comes to issues that really matter: social justice, human rights and economic prosperity.
This is what has led to the “dark continent of war, poverty and disease” stereotypes. “Truth above power, and the nation above government,” the motto of Saad Zaghloul, the populist leader who defied British colonial rule and ushered in Egypt’s first indigenous nationalist party (al-Wafd) is an example of a core value that needs to be shared between citizens and political leaders alike.
Shared values have worked for societies and corporations when they have been encouraged, driven, shared and lived by the leadership.
I mean, how can Malawi be growing at a canter and then suddenly degenerate into street protests that leave 20 people dead in 48 hours? Therein lies the danger of statistics! That’s a topic for another day.
When the police or army shoot at people as an automatic reaction, as we have seen before in Kenya, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in recent times, what does it say about the professional core values they are supposed to uphold in the business of peace keeping? Why resort automatically to violence?
Part of the blame of course lies with the populations themselves. In France, for example, the citoyens (citizens) are quick to take to the streets in mass and very calm protests when a politician is involved in a scandal, but also when a Jewish grave has been desecrated or a child raped.
It is an activist citizenry whereas we tend to not want to rock the boat until things get to pressure- cooker boiling point!
When leaders know that they cannot take the people for granted without consequences, you begin to lay a solid foundation for enhancing accountability without having to resort to violence that affects the poorest of the poor in the long run anyway.
Replace one regime by another without addressing the core values about leadership and political power and you will be doing the same thing all over again within a decade.
This is what we have seen in Malawi! I mean after Kamuzu Banda, one would have expected a golden era of peace, growth and eventual prosperity.
The problem is when you replace dictators with messiahs instead of public servants!
Greece is in the throes of an unprecedented economic crisis with skyrocketing youth unemployment, a clear recipe for disaster.
There have been clashes with the police in the streets for over a year now and “only” three people have died.
It is obviously three deaths too many but the cops, despite doing a difficult job in difficult economic conditions that affect their own families, know the consequences of shooting their fellow citizens who are noisily demonstrating their anger. A full enquiry is in progress.
So whether Malawians are gentle or not, the point is they must continue the nascent culture of taking to the streets as and when necessary and the authorities must allow them this democratic right and a culture of accountability will follow.
I remember when Ian Smith used to proclaim that he had the happiest Africans in the world in Rhodesia. Turns out they were not so happy after all, thus disproving a stereotype that said Rhodesian- era blacks were docile.
There is a stereotype of course that says Zimbabweans are docile, but I digress. Today, we are talking about Malawi, the warm heart of Africa.
Albert Gumbo is an alumnus of the Duke University-UCT US-Southern Africa Centre for Leadership and Public Values. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org