A Democracy of Chameleons: Politics and Culture in the New Malawi
Though South Africa has garnered much of the attention, 2004 was also the tenth anniversary of multiparty democracy in Malawi. The election of President Bingu wa Mutharika in May of last year has only underscored the equally complex and contested nature of democratic development there. This collection of essays stems from a conference held in June 2000 at the University of Malawi, but it easily speaks to this recent watershed. Edited by Harri Englund, an anthropologist based at the Nordic Africa Institute, A Democracy of Chameleons proposes to take stock of the political transition over the past ten years. It also has broader ambitions. In the introduction, Englund outlines a notion of "chameleon politics," which is drawn in part from Jack Mapanje's poetry collection, Of Chameleons and Gods (1981), but also is aimed at capturing the mercurial nature of alliances and animosity that have characterized contemporary Malawian politics and postcolonial politics generally throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Far from being transparent, the democratic political landscape ushered in since the end of Hastings Kamuzu Banda's autocratic regime, Englund argues, has been marked by an array of continuities, institutionally and ideologically, as well as uncertainty: "When a Malawian casts his or her vote for a particular party or individual, he or she must be prepared, it seems, to observe baffling manoeuvres before the next opportunity to vote arises" (13). This volume seeks to piece together why this is, why democracy remains unfinished in Malawi and so often in other places.
As one would expect from an anthropologist, a cultural approach to politics underpins this volume, an understanding that politics are "situated and shaped" (20) by a number of complementary and competing social discourses and practices. Englund and his contributors are wary of the determinism that can befall such an approach, but they also understand the strength of insight and analysis that can result when a populist, rather than party, approach is applied to the analysis of democratic transitions. [End Page 223] For example, in the first chapter on the persistent problem of poverty, Blessings Chinsinga discusses how President Bakili Muluzi rhetorically seized upon a culture of poverty, albeit with little indication of alleviating it. Indeed, monitoring suggests that poverty is on the increase, although it continues to be defined more often politically rather than economically. In a fascinating essay, Gerhard Anders explores how this broad social condition has affected government civil servants, examining their position of insecurity in the wake of World Bank structural readjustments as a case study of strategies undertaken by members of Malawi's middle class. In another chapter, Clement Ng'ong'ola looks at the role of the court system and lawyers in Malawi's transition.
The four chapters that follow go more deeply into explicitly cultural terrain. Addressing freedom of expression, Edrinnie Kayambazinthu and Fulata Moyo examine the phenomenon of hate speech and its continued use as a political weapon, with the threat of violence a concern. Reuben Makayiko Chirambo looks at the role of popular music as a platform for political debate, specifically through the career of Lucius Banda. Muluzi and the United Democratic Front have responded to his popularity and potential sedition through a practice of patronage. Churches, on the other hand, have long been a source of political dissent, nationally and regionally. Peter VonDoepp revisits this territory to caution against the expectation that clergy and churches will automatically participate in the creation of a vibrant civil society. In a chapter on ethnolinguistic associations, Gregory H. Kamwendo examines the general revival of ethnic pluralism in the new Malawi after the end of Banda's policy of "non-tribalism" to speculate on its political uses and problems.
The collection concludes with two important contributions. The first is an essay on the HIV/AIDS crisis. John Lwanda explores, among other aspects, the antagonism between government health policies and "traditional" medicine, arguing that mankhwala achikuda (black medicine) plays a significant role in a situation in which state hospitals are unable to handle the sheer magnitude of the demand and private hospitals are out of reach for most. The participation of even the elite in such alternative health systems underscores a need to recognize these dual options and it's the role they are playing in the crisis. Jack Mapanje, who himself was famously persecuted by the Banda regime, provides the afterword, a resonant cri du coeur in which he asks us to remember the past and work toward a better future.
In sum, this is a very well-balanced, empirically rich, and conceptually sound collection of essays that provides a much-needed update on the political transition in Malawi, as well as constructive case studies and perspectives that should garner attention elsewhere.