As a Zimbabwean in the diaspora (South Africa), I have had the privilege of happily meeting many Malawians. Much to my dismay, however, as a Zimbabwean, I am not met with the same enthusiasm, in fact rather the opposite, much hostility which has unfortunately seen me slowly change my mind about Malawians being the warm people they perceive themselves to be.
Untangling or detangling Malawi- Zimbabwe relations is not the purpose of this article for a number of reasons unnecessary to elucidate. Especially given that it is our colonial past that contributed greatly to our richer/poor cousin relationship and I am a product of post colonial Zimbabwe, a born free, born free of colonial hangovers that have bound the previous generation.
Anyway, back to the crux of this piece, I finally took pen to paper is because of my continuous following of the decline of Malawi and observations thereof. In fact, these observations and are due to consistent Zimbabwe jokes by Malawians, and my constant and consistent retort (or response depending on my mood) which is ‘in many ways, you are already there…’
Often reading the comments and articles on dire situation Malawians find themselves, there often (undue) comparisons with Zimbabwe, often indicating that Malawi is going the so called Zimbabwe road but has yet to arrive. Again I reiterate, ‘in many ways, you are already there…’
It appears that Zimbabwe is the benchmark for not only poverty, but economic and human rights of that came out of a promising democracy. Granted, the adjustment of the rising sun on Malawi’s flag to a full sunshine to symbolise a developed country can only be viewed as a joke, a mean one at that seeing that the events of the past 18 months have only solidified the opposite and I for one can only sympathise not jeering and make fun.
After all, a developed country is one that embraces all matters pertaining to development and progress, including economic and civic freedoms. Anyway, back to the matter at hand and why I believe that Malawi is already a so called Zimbabwe near its worst. Near its worst? Not quite but since the 2009 and the ushering in of multicurrency use, things have improved significantly in some ways. I would go so far as stating that Zimbabwe is actually faring better economically than Malawi at the moment.
Let me begin by expressing in a few points what my Zimbabwe represents and what in the events of the past 10 years convinces me that Malawi in 2 years is already where Zimbabwe was in 2007/8, prior the dollarization. Whilst one cannot characterise Zimbabwe’s challenges in a nutshell, there are a few glaring similarities between the 2 countries near the height of Zimbabwe’s decline which actually due to a multiplier effect, multiplied already existing problems. The similarities are below:
- Lack of forex and the rise of the parallel market (black market) rendering all imports and some local good expensive due to the high price of imports. As Malawians have observed, the rules of supply and demand are real!
- Companies reducing and even ceasing operations due to a lack of forex and a hostile operating environment. Manufacturing companies have pulled out and there are reports of many South African outlets closing shop as well. The hostile operating environment is perhaps the reason why the rumours of the planned South African styled mall in Lilongwe have ceased. On a more recent front, one cannot be in denial given that airlines are already reducing flights. Whilst in Zimbabwe this was the norm, our national carrier, British Airways and SAA for the most part shuffled Zimbabweans in and out of the country. Certainly in 2008, at the height of the strive, madness, we had airlines flying in and out of the country daily.
- Fuel shortages and fuels queues that last for days, need I elaborate? You saw the pictures of Zimbabwe and now you can relate.
- Electricity outages so frequent that one can count the (few) hours they have power rather than the (many) hours when they do not. With this, generators have been the business for those who can afford but of course, these are powered by fuel which is often in short supply. Let me not touch on those women who have suffered and even lost lives due to power outages in hospitals, it is an unnecessary painful point. Apart from the USA planned power programme that has been suspended, I am sure part of the power shortages are caused by debt to power supplying countries and in the case of Malawi, tension with neighbours.
- Inflation- whilst Malawians are not going to the shops with wheelbarrows filled with money as Zimbabweans where, one wonders how farfetched the notion given the constantly rising prices, devaluation rumours, parallel market forex prices and the printing of higher denomination notes which are already obsolete before hitting the market. Yes, I said it! With the introduction of the MK1000 note in July should be the introduction of a MK5000 and even MK10 000 because indications point to Zim- style inflation. Whilst the arguments for devaluation are controversial at best, until a resolve is found, I am afraid to say, inflation will be part of life because of shortages of forex from official channels and prohibitive forex prices on the parallel market. Furthermore, like Zimbabwe, planning is a thing of the past unless one earns in forex because of escalating prices and fuel shortages. One can budget to the tee but if tipped of the arrival of fuel at a service station, the budget flies out the window.
- Democracy, governance, rule of law, whilst I want to keep away as much as possible from this topic due to the very different contexts of each country, I want to draw parallels between the handling our governments to academic approaches to the matter of the Arab spring. Now whilst Malawians were making fun of Zimbabwe because some of my fellow countrymen went to jail for watching the film and holding a public discussion about the events in North Africa, I want to emphasise that the discussion of that same Arab spring in Malawi resulted in lecturers being fired and the closure of Chancellor College for almost a semester. Putting these situations side by side, they could unfortunately pass for twins, mischievous ones at that.
The above points are neither comprehensive nor complete but mere highlights of the many issues that characterise the similarities between Zimbabwe near its worst and Malawi right now. If Malawians are to come out of this, my humble suggestion would be to learn from Zimbabweans who have been through a similar but worse situation.
So, next time one feels ok with the situation in Malawi because of the thought that ‘We are better than Zimbabwe’, just remember, in many way, you are (unfortunately) already there.