Malawi, like her immediate neighbor Zambia to the West, did not define their pre- and post-independence dispensations within the broader regional discourses of the time: “socialism.” These dispensations were predominantly defined as struggles to attain self-rule and republican ownership of the wealth of the concerned territory. Republican, because in the government’s view, state-led programs of infrastructure development, social services expansion and state-capitalism were required as a minimal necessity for growth and development before the economy itself would eventually take-over from government. The economy referring predominantly to a capacitation of the people with capital and especially expertise. Even though this approach mirrored much of the government activities happening within the immediate region and beyond, the official line did not classify these programs (or the government itself) as socialism (or a socialist state). What’s more, the government didn’t classify its activities as capitalism either. Rather, they were all broadly construed as a sort of mixed-bag of ventures conducive for cultivating a sense of nationalism which was justified by the socio-economic achievements of the period after colonialism. Necessarily, the state was excessively top-down.
But why does this matter presently? Unlike many of her neighbors, Malawi does not see active propagations neither from central government nor from the political parties that form government, of any particular sets of the traditional ideologies that have and with certain variations continue to dominate the region. In this sense, nationalism continues to be broadly understood as a formula of redistributive capitalism in which the governments of various countries within the region support economic growth for purposes of funding social programs through the fiscus. The most towering amongst such governments in the region are those of South Africa (albeit blighted with a severe corruption crisis), Angola (with its sort of de facto and corrupt presidential monarchy) and Botswana. But even this is not seen in contemporary Malawian political rhetoric. Granted that political ideology is undefined, Malawi’s political parties and all of its past governments have implicitly espoused and pursued programs of government-and-big business cooperation in infrastructure, education, health and energy (alongside direct and indirect donor support) purely for economic stimulation with lesser components primarily designated for humanitarian ends (and like South Africa and Angola, within a severely corrupt and fraudulent political environment).
Additionally, privatization has remained a strong feature of the Malawian economy since democratization (under varying amounts of pressure from Bretton-Woods), intensifying now as the last parastatal industries of water and energy seem well on their way into the private sector. It is also important to note however that the charge towards privatization is also due to a large extent a deeply entrenched political culture of intentional misadministration within public enterprises: in which case, privatization is accepted with a great deal public and pundit reservation. Nonetheless, the sheer enormity of corruption crisis has to many rendered privatization a lesser evil. Of course, the market will allocate these amenities on the basis of who can afford them. It remains to be seen how such already limited amenities will thus expand outwards towards a population that largely has an extremely low capacity to spend. This seems like the start of yet another loop back into public enterprises a few years down the road. But I digress…
And so, when the terrible attacks happened in Paris, social media, particularly Facebook, became alight with activity. At first, messages of condolences dominated the interactions. Shortly into the unfolding tragedy, a filter-app for the flag of France was made available by Facebook. In solidarity, many profiles took on the familiar flag colors of France – however, in no time, a different charge steadily began to manifest as a result of it. The dominant idea was that France had not been the only or even the worst tragedy that had befallen humanity that week, if not that very same day, and yet Facebook with the broader global media, had not so much as acknowledged them, let alone made an app available to commemorate those who had died in those other countries. The first group who had used the apps countercharged, stating that because some lives had not be reported did not mean that those that had been reported were not to be grieved. The discussions expanded out of these two general themes, acquiring quite a high level of sophistication – imploring historical, political economic, religious and moral-philosophical arguments. The exchanges got more and more heated over the course of that weekend so much so that by the end of Sunday I saw several status updates alluding to “unfriending”, fatigue, irritation, exhaustion, resignation – and even calls for “ceasefires.”
As a social scientist, my immediate obsession was to look closely at the discussions to try to discern an ideological bedrock behind that two sets of arguments. Basically, I wanted to know upon what criteria of collective socio-historical (un)thinking had they been propped up. I was largely unable to do so. The references to various sources, such as historic ones and others, were incidental to the arguments, but largely fell short of articulating, therefore, one or two joined up nationalistic worldviews per se. Looking closer however, I got the sense that this ideological absence was there because, in Malawi’s current state of political and cultural economy, there is an ongoing process of negotiation rooted in the very artefacts or elements of various severally acquired ideologies and cultures. The absence of a politically narrated ideology since the days of independence apart from the vague nationalism of rebuilding essentially engendered, after democratization in 1994, a society of multiple spheres of localized cultural experimentation and creation.
However, Malawi also being a country burdened with severe social inequalities, these particular forms of creativity and experimentation are thus more intense in places were the enabling incomes, amenities and infrastructure are more readily available. In these places, such as Blantyre and Lilongwe, locals get into cultural exchanges with internationals in person, through media such as television, through the availability of goods and services (the so-called comforts of western life, so to speak), through the internet and personal/business travel, higher education and also through social media. In cultural terms, these conditions give rise to a multitude of affordances and tools, as well as a source of the economic and socio-psychological building blocks for personal identity, cultural identity as well as social identity. The truncating aspect of these experiences is that they are available through the technologies and infrastructures that make various cultural affordances accessible, and which are concentrated in the few cities and towns which can sustain them. And therefore in turn, are also concentrated in places where their most aggressive projections through those same technologies are most available – such as on Facebook and perhaps to some extent Twitter and Instagram.
This therefore allude to class – class primarily in terms of one’s ability to access them and subsequently the underlying condition that they are only accessible largely to a certain criteria of people who live in certain places of the country were such affordances exist. But over and above this sort of classist minimum, the modalities of appropriation when cultural exchange begins to happen occur upon a wide, largely undefined canvas of vague nationalism, unencumbered by wide-reaching historical doctrines that specifically expect of people certain beliefs about the world, its various countries, various peoples and so on. In that view, the debate about #PrayForParis which happened on social media in Malawi was naturally one of numerous fronts, with occasional convergences perhaps emanating from common academic backgrounds and other such cliques, but largely free of an entrenched, underlying and guiding ideological narrative. It was well and truly a social media enabled laboratory within which localized Malawian authenticities intersected and clashed. It was the very process of negotiation expressed amongst members of a minimum enabling social class, and within the projected intersections of their numerous authenticities. And with the class mechanism (much like the political process in society in general) already having filtered out all the other voices.
In a way, this is advantageous because the country in a socio-political sense remains open to a diversity of programs for addressing its complex developmental challenges. This is not to downplay the fact that religious (Judeo-Christian, Islamic as well as indigenous systems) influences play a vital part especially when ambiguities arise and a need to quickly populate and produce a moral code for the Malawian society presents itself. And indeed, these are the easiest to invoke. Nevertheless, experiences remain somewhat disjointed as the country continuously fails to write a continuous story (true or fictitious or a bit of both) about itself. Indeed, one such fiction is the notion that “Malawi is a peace-loving nation,” a creed that was used largely to silence and repress prior to democracy, dampen calls for accountability and constitutional governance after democratization – and which has now come to mean, “peaceful because of a great and yet contained capacity for violence” – after it has become increasingly obvious that mass political mobilization is an inherent possibility within Malawi to the effect of dislodging governments. And also that government has a great capacity to respond with a deadly violence against citizens.
Notwithstanding, while praying for Paris, Malawi showed to herself that her existence is one of a continuous negotiation precariously hobbling on into her future without the often comforting whispers of an embedded ideology of who Malawians are, what their place in the world is – and therefore who their friends or foes are in the process. This is, in my view, truly blissful – but if only Malawians can somehow enable it more and harness it.
Mphatso Moses Kaufulu is a political and cultural sociologist from Malawi concerned with questions about social epistemology in Southern Africa. He is a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He is interested in the idea of culture as “play”, culture as history, and culture as power.