Reform is great, but if you bring reforms without the buy-in of major stakeholders; if you are not listening to public opinion on a particular reform area and if you ignore the rule of law, transparency and accountability in the drive for change, you get the kind of backlash that President Lazarus Chakwera’s Tonse administration has been canned with over the Labour Relations (Amendment) Bill.
More especially, if the bulk of the composition of the ruling elite that pushes for such a Bill is Malawi Congress Party (MCP); then you first need a history lesson on MCP and employee relations in Malawi and how this party killed unionism.
If MCP leaders had bothered to look at how the party’s economic and political policies had crushed employee relations then maybe they could have managed the legislation with much more sensitivity than they have.
They would have learnt that between 1964 and 1991, their party launched the most vindictive, bloody and dehumanising assault on trade unionism and employee relations ever.
But the folks in MCP didn’t bother to look at the history books, so I will give them a crush course through Enoch Chihana, son to the father and founder of Malawian democracy Chakufwa Chihana, the man who spent almost his entire life promoting and defending the rights of fellow workers.
To see that his son, Enoch and his Alliance for Democracy are part of a crusade to dismantle everything he cared and worked for in his entire professional life must really be heartbreaking to the late leader.
It is like, while in his grave, MCP and Hastings Kamuzu Banda have returned to torment his soul all over again.
History tells us that after Chihana completed his secondary school, he went to work for the Nyasaland colonial government and became active in its 4 000-strong Commercial General Union.
By 1958, he was publicity secretary and a year later, at the tender age of 21 years, he became the union’s general secretary and gave major companies such as Malawi Railways and Imperial Tobacco Limited hell in his quest for his members’ better working conditions.
Please take note that this was before Malawi gained independence, yet unionism was hyper-active.
Chihana realised that he needed to entrench the spirit of unionism in political parties and thus joined MCP. When MCP’s Kamuzu Banda assumed power and became more autocratic, Chihana courageously challenged his absolute powers and pushed for independent unionism.
Kamuzu Banda did not like that and activated violent attacks against Chihana and—after seeing to it that the unionist was grievously assaulted and humiliated—he forced him into exile.
Chihana, with the help of a Catholic Priest, went to Kenya where he became advisor to the Kenya Federation of Labour. With Chihana out of the way (although MCP later abducted him in Nairobi to be imprisoned in Malawi for six years), MCP crushed unionism, cutting the number of trade unions from 19 to five.
Even the five were in name only as most of them were integrated into the one-party structure as stooges of the regime, unable to help their oppressed members—leaving them with no chance to bargain for fair wages and better working conditions.
These draconian political manouvres were not enough apparently. MCP passed the Trade Dispute Act in 1952, effectively ending strikes. This was followed by the Trade Union Act in 1958, which basically curtailed freedom of association—workers could not be in twos or threes without being accused of conspiring to strike or trying to stir trouble at the work place.
The Ministry of Labour itself never cared about workers’ rights, leading to massive ill-treatment at the hands of the private sector, which largely comprised companies that Kamuzu personally controlled.
It was, again, Chihana who returned to save the Malawian worker and the nation at large. He, together with the Catholic Church and their Pastoral Letter, the emergence of pressure groups and donor pressure, created the largest protest movement the country had ever seen.
The workers, inspired by Chihana, embarked on massive strikes in the cities of Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu around 1992—sparked by employees’ protests at the iconic David Whitehead and Sons in Blantyre and wildly razed through the nation.
That movement of millions claiming their rights to freedom of expression, association and for collective bargaining rode MCP out of power and ushered in the most sweeping legal reforms that rolled back MCP’s cruel labour relations and employment laws.
This new law may have the best of intentions, but MCP was not the best face to push it through; certainly not without a clear public relations effort. People still remember even as the party forgets.
And Chakufwa Chihana’s soul is no longer resting in peace. Get that Enoch.