Can the Malawian ‘vendors’ speak?

In 1988, Gayatri Spivak published a postcolonial critique that emphasized class as a key historical phenomenon in analyses of subaltern speech. It is from her treatise that this current examination borrows its title. Spivak was primarily concerned with how exogenous discourses and interventions misrepresent subaltern voices and politics in the global south.

One example is Malawi, where earlier this week, suspected vendors in Lilongwe and Mzuzu violently stripped women who they deemed to be dressed indecently. Just to mention that this follows similar developments in South Africa.

Strippers gang hunt for trouser women in buses

I deplore all forms of violence, especially structural violence. I also detest the fact that institutions of structural violence have the tendency to redesign the violence in order to sexualise its perpetration on women. This critique however, rejects the total reduction of vendors’ acts into a single human rights story – that of ‘violence by men against women’.

Currently, Malawian punditry is embroiled in open performances of denouncing the ‘savagery’ of ‘these vendors’  for undressing the ‘innocent’ women, ‘who have the right to dress as they like’.

Such public commentaries are failing to problematize the ‘stripping’ of the women as a political act, in which marginalized groups use violence as a form of communication. Subaltern speech, for the postcolonial thinker Achille Mbembe, is often banal and vulgar, and is imbued with sporadic but politicized forms of violence, even against comrade subalterns.

The ‘vendors’ who have been stigmatised semantically and empirically, are mere objects of our public discourse: they are being spoken of, spoken for, and spoken about – reminding us of the objective of Spivak’s ‘Can the subaltern speak’ – to recover the politics in the speech of the subaltern, otherwise, Karl Marx warned, they could end up ‘being represented’.

Public statement after public statement or interview after interview, organizations and politicians are constructing a regime of castigation – in denouncing the ‘savage’ and ‘barbaric’ acts of the ‘vendors’. Some of the vendor leadership has even participated in this theatre of newspaper and social media advocacy and activism, distancing itself from the ‘vendors’ it supposedly represents.

Nancy Tembo of MCP has reiterated that in Malawi, there is freedom of dressing. Not to be out-performed, Joyce Banda, has lamented the ‘state of anarchy’ as manifested in such ‘deplorable violence against women’. Likewise, Patricia Kaliati has outrageously declared that women have the right to even wear nightdresses to church. But the Oscar for the best performance of denunciation goes to the feminist campaigner, Reen Kachere, for having described the perpetrators as ‘rapists’ who ‘realise that trouser-wearing women are hard to rape’.

The supporting Oscar performance goes to Hetherwick Ntaba, who opined that the President had nothing to do with the action of the vendors  – the very group that the presidency provided alcoholic drinks to a couple of months ago. The Oscar for a promising theatre of activism goes to the newly-established Yedema, which described the same vendors as a ‘terrorist group’. No-one wants to associate with ‘them’ anymore.

But what happened in Malawi was much deeper than just men’s violence against women. It is not, as Atupele Muluzi insinuated, about ‘viewing women as mothers, as originators of life’. Women are much more than their physiological organs or socially-constructed traditional roles. Nor is it just about women only. It is about contesting power.

‘Vendors’ have been ‘speaking’ since they emerged on the streets soon after multiparty democracy. In 2004, I published a short online critique, ‘The power of community consultation’ based on interviews with vendors in Blantyre and Zomba on why they were refusing to move into flea markets. I had criticised the failure by the Malawian polity to communicate with marginalized groups.

Economic marginalization is a ticking time-bomb in Malawi. The rising poverty and unemployment, or the lack of vocational and higher education opportunities for graduates stand in stark contrast to the opulent lifestyles of many of our leaders. As such, we need to look at the structural factors that force subaltern groups to embrace violence as a communicative action.

I consider the vendors’ stripping of women a very important political statement. Unlike some demonstrations that are led, funded and choreographed by organizations and individuals with certain ideological aspirations, the vendors’ vulgar explosion of anger against fellow subalterns (women) is an authentic political voice from below. One characteristic of the politics of subaltern speech is that, in its violent form, the body is elevated into a battlefield for symbolically contesting economic and political power.

Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in protest against corrupt city officials, sparking the Tunisian and Arab ‘revolutions’. Similarly, Bubaneswari, in Spivak’s article, used menstruation to politicise what would have passed as a simple self-immolation. Recently, Mumpy Sarkar, a 12 year-old Indian girl, committed suicide in order to donate her organs to family members who urgently needed a donor, but were not being helped by a corrupt and inefficient health system – her instruction note only being discovered after her body had been cremated.

To borrow Raymond William’s  ‘structure of feeling’ – the Malawian vendors’  speech may be considered vulgar or violent; their actions, barbaric or deplorable. Or they may appear to be possessed by the devil (it’s reported that there will be prayers organised as part of demonstrations). It seems the Devil has recently been passing through the country from visiting Zimbabwe on the way to his home village, the Middle East. Yet these vendors live in abject marginalization, in which their life is a form of death in itself.

My plea is, we should avoid using human rights as a critical perspective towards examining this issue, thereby misrepresenting the public ‘undressing’ to a simple ‘act of male violence against women’. It is not time to go kneeling down at donor institutions, pleading for funds to ‘fight against the rise in violence against women’, or to confess that ‘black men see women as sex objects hence the increased violence’. Because it is neither just a simple nor single story.

The unified theatre of newspaper activism by organizations also reveals the problem of civil society politics in Malawi – which is rich in public rhetoric but devoid of empirical grassroots engagement. In employing western-centric human rights discourses to criticise the vendors’ actions, organizations have demonstrated how far removed they are from the politics of the subaltern they claim to represent.

The vendors have delivered an important political speech on economic marginalization in the country, being perpetuated by the current masturbatory and cannibalistic political cabal. We should use their speech to rethink economic development. For starters, we could strategize on how to establish primary and manufacturing industries around the current Rural Growth Centres, in order to arrest unplanned urbanization, increasing poverty, unemployment and economic marginalization.

It’s high time we learnt to speak with and alongside the ‘vendors’. The essence of their complex symbolic politics lies right in the banality and vulgarity of their action speech.

*Linje Manyozo, London School of Economics and Political Science

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