History, both ancient and contemporary, tells us that experience is the best teacher. As Cicero, that Roman politician and philosopher said: “Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to be always a child. If no use is made of the labours of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge”. As the adage goes, ignore history at your own peril.
Experience, being a culmination of knowledge or skill of a particular thing or some event gained through involvement in or exposure to that event, is both a concrete historical reality and a genuine vocation of the people. As Paolo Freire points out in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “to surmount a situation of oppression, people must first critically recognise its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity”. Since development is progress from less human to more humane conditions, any pursuit for it must be anchored by praxis.
Central to the praxis is critical reflection, the act of reading signs of the times. But Freire also cautions against prescriptive tendencies of some forms of intervention, arguing that prescription itself represents the imposition of one individual’s choice upon another, transforming the consciousness of the person prescribed to, into one that conforms with the prescriber’s consciousness”.
We infer two key lessons from the above. On the one hand is the fact that action without reflection leads to mere activism while on the other, we confront the meaninglessness of verbalism or, in other words, reflection without action. It is very sad though, that Malawi continues to swing, like a pendulum, at the cross-roads of political verbalism and unproductive activism of mass protests.
Within the suspense of the national quasi-theatrical experience, we are witnessing a government tittering on the edge of “legitimating crisis”. Legitimating crisis occurs when a governing authority retains the legal authority by which to govern, but is unable to demonstrate that its practical functioning fulfils the end for which it was instituted. At the heart of legitimating crisis is the risk for a governing authority to lose public confidence.
As the quagmire is increasingly becoming more confusing, we also see a majority of Malawians supporting Consumers Association of Malawi (Cama) in its call for mass protests scheduled to take place on January 17. Underneath the clarion call are several questions not asked as well as numerous assumed answers. According to the organisers of the protests, the mass action is meant to protest economic hardships being experienced by poor Malawians.
But has Cama thoroughly considered questions such as these: What is the nature of the current economic situation? Is it a result of deliberate government policies or IMF bulldozing? Is there any real possibility for government to take a fundamentally different policy direction without risking further recession? What has government not done well to protect the poor from the effects of devaluation or what should be done differently? Is a demonstration at this point in time necessary?
Unless there are unconvincing answers to these questions, prospects for a truly effective and liberating mass demonstration may be too far to grasp. Answers to these questions are necessary for the simple reason that the enjoyment of the right to demonstrate entails genuine reflection on the problem at hand and available options to pursue. The question of utility is valid since the right to demonstrate is not enjoyed for its own sake only, but mostly as a means to some other end.
It is at this very juncture that we observe complacency evident in the manner in which the leadership is handling the whole issue.
The point here is that despite the stalled economy, escalation of unemployment, the looming hunger, soaring cost of living, alarming population growth, and the increasing pessimism in the wider public on the ability of the current leadership to tackle the situation, the leadership has been characterised by deafening verbalism punctuated by government’s concentration on mundane activities such as distributing maize.