To become the world’s greatest statesman, Nelson Mandela, Anti-apartheid hero to his people and terrorist to his rivals, had to pick the best words at the right time.
Leaving jail after 27 years for his involvement in a justified armed struggle against the forces that divided South Africa into impoverished black and prosperous white, Madiba, as he was fondly known, decided to use the language of the oppressor to assure everyone that all would be welcome in a new South Africa and that a new chapter in racial harmony was on the horizon.
“Wat is verby is verby” (“what is past is past”) he declared in perfect Afrikaans, the language of the minority white Dutch settlers who had ruled South Africa with an iron fist in the previous 100 years.
With that pronouncement, white fears of black retaliation for all crimes of Apartheid were assuaged and a bloodbath that had looked eerily inevitable at some point, as South Africa transited from minority white rule to majority black rule, was averted.
It’s heart-warming, to say the least, to see that our main leaders of the opposition have risen to the occasion and called upon their supporters to peacefully welcome whatever the outcome of the Constitutional Court (ConCourt) might be. The international community, church, media, civil society, and many others, have previously made the same call. President Peter Mutharika, although reluctant to directly address his supporters, has on more occasions than one also stressed on the need to maintain law and order.
While Mutharika, as the head of government, has the ultimate obligation to also rise above the fray and also call, unequivocally, on both his supporters, and those he is yet to earn, to do a similarly honourable thing and respect the law, we can comfortably say that in terms of commitment pronounced in public we are in safe zone.
But words are never enough—they are in fact useless—if not matched by action. To begin at the top, Mutharika, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, must be given credit for ensuring no citizen has been killed while protesting in the long winter of discontent that we now hope it’s coming to an end.
Although what happened at Msundwe, when police officers raped some 17 women, meted arbitrary arrests and acted like some sick militia in retaliation to the brutal murder of the colleague by protesters is despicable, the police and the military still deserve to be commended by acting with restraint throughout much of the time.
And we are only fair to commend the Commander-in-Chief for allowing that to happen although this column would be first to remember that some of the President’s words—in the recent past—were too militant. But that is past, to quote Mandela, “the past is the past”.
So, now the onus is on Mutharika to ensure that the police and the military forces all act with restraint once the judges finish reading their verdict. As head of State, whose very future is also at stake, Mutharika also has the responsibility to respect the long tradition of peaceful transition this country has established by honouring the court verdict if it doesn’t go his way. Anything short of unconditional acceptance of the verdict will spark a fire that we all may struggle to extinguish.
Finally, as party leader, he owes it to the children of this nation, the economy, his own legacy, his party and family, to also immediately lead his party to either celebrate or mourn the decision of the five judges with the sobriety and magnanimity this moment deserves.
Back to Saulos Chilima and Lazarus Chakwera. The two petitioners have given their souls and every piece of treasure they could have mustered to overturn Mutharika’s victory. Many agree with their cause. The two have the power to put this country on fire if they could just make the order, or even just carelessly shrug their shoulders in rejecting the verdict. This country will need them to speak quickly in light of a verdict that is particularly negative to them, so that the whole nation knows that nobody should destroy the country. Not in their names, anyway.
To the individual soldier and police officer on the street, this is the time to exercise caution. Carry out your duties knowing that those whom you police tomorrow and in the rest of the immediate aftermath are not just your country men and women, they are your brothers and sisters. Power must always be employed with caution.
To the rest of the citizenry, we have reached a time to demonstrate once again the character that has made Malawi an envy to many an outsider, the famous warm heartedness, compassion for others, that peaceful nature. By taking to court their petitions and sustaining protests on the streets, the opposition have already registered their victory.
By ensuring that the judges determine the case without interference, the ruling party has shown a side that many citizens of many African countries can only wish of their governments, too. We, together, have ensured our democracy is the winner through this, hopefully, ending a turbulent time.