When the British administrators ruled us during the colonial era, they literally lorded it over us, creating a huge gap between them and us. We resented colonialism because, among other things, we wanted the majority of our people to participate in the running of affairs of government and commerce.
Blantyre and Lilongwe were never settler cities but Salisbury, now Harare, was. In fact, at independence, neither Blantyre nor Lilongwe had attained city status. Salisbury was already a city by that time. Being a settler city, it was designed to serve the interests of the colonial masters. Its central business district was a no go area for natives during night hours. The settlers created dwelling units for natives very far away from the city centre.
The first time that I visited Mabvuku, one residential area in Harare meant for natives, I was surprised at its great distance from the centre of Harare. It was much later that it dawned upon me that the distance was by design. The whites wanted the blacks to live as far away from them as possible. It was their policy to maintain a distance, socially and physically, between themselves and their black servants.
When we became independent, we had the opportunity to close that gap. The generation of Africans that had the privilege to attain secondary and even tertiary education after independence was well placed to eradicate the social distance between the elites and the masses. This social distance has been responsible for the glaring inequalities between classes of people.
A whole nexus of factors is responsible for perpetuating the deep-seated poverty that we have in this country. One element in the nexus is the wide and growing chasm between the very few wealthy people and the poor masses. This yawning chasm should by now have been narrowed or even eliminated by the generation that went to local university and other colleges after independence. This columnist belongs to that generation.
We must confess that we have failed the nation. All we did was move into the white people’s positions but maintained or even widened the distance between us—the elites, and the masses. We introduced a new type of colonialism, where the masters were not foreign but local.
The Malawian boss is a very isolated individual, yes even to Mabvuku proportions. And they want to keep it that way. I once worked for ICI Pharmaceuticals near Manchester. It took me some time to know who the boss was, as we all worked in one large room. In Malawi, it would probably have taken me an equally long chunk of time to get to know the boss, but for a different reason, namely that he or she would not be easily accessible. Malawian bosses use isolated offices and will be surrounded by an impervious wall of officers—secretaries, personal assistants and others.
Their parking slots cannot be used by anybody else, even at times when they are not available. The poor non-entities working under them are always haunted by the thought that the boss may just be around the corner or would somehow be eavesdropping on everything they say or observing everything they do. They would, therefore, not do anything that would be misconstrued as being disrespectful, such us using the boss’s parking slot while they are away.
As a result of this exclusion of the masses from the economy, there is hardly any progress in the national economic activity. The masses are little more than mere spectators in our economy. They are neither consulted nor given the chance to contribute their ideas in the running of corporate or government affairs. It is the elites that call the shots, and the lesser mortals simply play ball. The social distance between the elites and the masses is not just great, but it is growing. We have too many know-it-alls who think only their ideas should be taken on board in the game of running private and public affairs.
The great ancient civilisations—Egypt, China, Mesopotamia—thrived because ordinary citizens, and not just the rulers, participated in getting things done. People like Archimedes popped from nowhere to make their great contributions to civilisation. During the industrial revolution, ordinary people like Jethro Tull and George Stephenson left an indelible mark on industry with their inventions.
I would urge all those who call themselves “boss” at any level to search within themselves and find out whether or not they are alienated from the people below them, and what the results of their alienation are. Are we inching forward or backward as a corporate entity, or indeed as a nation?