The world buried Muhammad Ali a week ago. A boxing icon to so many, a great human being to even more. We are given to polite exaggeration when people pass on but in Ali’s case it can be said with certainty that with his passing, the world lost one of the true greats to have ever walked amongst us.
For me personally, two anecdotes stand out from his remarkable life. The first is his 1964 fight against Sonny Liston, arguably the best heavyweight boxer of that generation. Dubbed ‘the Big Bear’, it is not mere hyperbole to speculate that many thought Ali, an overly talkative challenger, would have to be stretchered off the canvas. But Ali, even to his own surprise, not only lived to tell the tale but defeated Liston via a technical knockout.
The second anecdote centres on Ali’s refusal to undertake compulsory military service in Vietnam. Reflecting on the position of African American citizens in the 1960s USA, Ali observed wryly:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end.”
Refusing military service was no easy decision. He stood to be stripped of his boxing titles; and jailed for 5 years, he would have his sporting licences and would lose millions of dollars in missed fight prizes. Yet, despite such great personal losses, Ali stood steadfast for his principles and accepted the unfair jail term that would be the consequence of his stand.
These two anecdotes from Ali’s life offer some important lessons in the fortunes of our beloved Malawi. As a nation, we are collectively facing our own Liston moment. Whether this be persistent hunger, severely strained public services or an economy that is always verging on the asthmatic. Many countries across the globe have faced such incredible odds and come through much stronger, much more resilient on the other side.
Just as Ali fought in an unconventional style and outwitted opponents who on paper seemed better, much more powerful; we too need to fight smarter. The old habits of big-man government, cashgating, tribalism and political patronage will take us nowhere.
We need public officers who sting like bees, but only when delivering service to our nation and not only when their path to cashgate is blocked. We need innovative leaders whose first solution is not to beg for alms from countries whose interest in our futures is but peripheral.
On an individual level, we need a few more good men and women of principle. Too often well-designed government systems have been subverted by good people who have stood by and let illegal and corrupt practice thrive. The majority of Malawians are decent folks striving to survive in this beautiful land of ours, only to be shafted by self-interested elites whose vision extends only as far as the next cashgate opportunity or election, whichever is closer. When the scams and schemes that have done us great damage have been conceived and implemented; from Fieldyork to cashgate; the schemers have done so in the knowledge that they could use the wrath of government to ostracize and punish those who speak out.
We need to encourage a culture of speaking truth to power, even in the face of personal adversity. We need to celebrate those who speak out and protect those who stand for principle in the face of incredible odds. We have read about the cashgaters who drove around with uncountable cash in their boots and have been regaled with tales of unnecessary purchase from undeserved riches. But what of the men and women who stood up to the masterminds of these schemes? Can we hear their stories too?
- Thoko Kaime is a teacher and a lawyer