Sunday, 11 June 2017

Democracy is a messy business.

I was, as some of you know, in Malawi in the winter.

In 1964, Malawi emerged from the British Protectorate and became a fully independent country. After years of protests, Dr Banda stepped into the role of President. My guide, Everlasting, worked for him at one stage - I think he was a mechanic looking after the Presidential vehicles and he was in a prime position to observe the machinations  of the system. He told me at length about Dr Banda's diplomatic skills, notably his efforts to bring the apartheid regime in South Africa back into the international fold. Everlasting was, however, reticent if I raised the question of Dr Banda's abuses of power at home.

In 1994, under pressure from within and outside Malawi, Dr Banda agreed to a referendum to introduce a parliamentary democracy and this launched the current multi-party system. There is, now, a proliferation of parties - but rarely a transfer of power. If an election produces a surprising result, ministers simply change parties so they can stay in office. Roads leading to ministerial homes are maintained while others are full of potholes. Ministers' friend and family live in luxury while it is common for teachers and other public servants not to be paid. None of this is hidden; I heard people discuss is openly and read stories of mislaid funds and unpaid teachers in the newspapers.

'So,' I asked, 'was life better under Dr Banda - before the multi-party system?'

Everlasting thought for a long time. 

'Now we have freedom of speech,' he said eventually. 

And that's the point. Now he can complain about his government and its incompetences. Yet even now he can't talk about the atrocities of the Dr Banda years, though he must have known about them.

This is democracy. It's messy and imperfect and can expose deep divisions. But it's precious. So maybe we should celebrate our current chaos - it's what we have the privilege of voting for. 


  1. Yes, indeed, Jo, but it always makes me wonder how people feel when the price of their freedom is still more poverty and hunger. It's a hard one, that!

    1. There was terrible poverty and hunger in Malawi under Banda - but Cuba is the country that raises big questions for me. Totalitarian, but nobody starves and everyone can read.

  2. There is always that famous quote from Churchill, which about sums up democracy for me.

  3. I have similar memories from living and working in a small African country in the 1980s/1990s, corruption, nepotism, secret prisons etc. but all highly visible, everybody knew, due the small scale. We were outsiders and watched. Since then, it is so obvious to me that a lot of the same happens here in our world, lobbyist, corporate interests, power that corrupts etc. only so very well hidden.

    Democracy is hard work, not something happening in the higher realms of power which we should take for granted or feel we cannot influence. Civics lessons should be mandatory in schools. And we all need a refresher from time to time.

  4. I cannot say much other than I agree with you 100%. :-)

    Greetings from London.