Demonstrations in Malawi: Towards Occupation of the Public Space Billy Abner Mayaya* Ph. D

Democracy and democratic societies are changing the outlook of the world we live in. Public liberation and a neo liberal perspective on matters in the 21st century have helped governments, and the common man to work for the ‘greater good.’ The lack of participation in the decision-making process in Malawi is mainly because of the lack of public spaces. There has also been a fundamental transformation in local politics with social media serving as a major driving force.

There are more people voicing their concerns now than ever before with the emergence of Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms. But this truly may not affect the decision making of governments, and the demos may not even be a part of the decision-making process unless there is a physical presence of the demos actively involved so that the elite at the very least work under the influence of civil disobedience.

With pluralism, comes the benefit, and problems. The benefits are huge, but so are the problems. There has been major boost in awareness, but also an increase in the gap between the rich and the poor. Is this because Malawi’s democracy is not working or is it because people’s voices are not being heard by duty bearers? Is increasing impunity shrinking public spaces?

The Roots of Public Space in Grecian History
The influence of public spaces on the working of a government dates back to 600 BC, the Greek agoras. Agora was a central spot in ancient Greek city-states. The literal meaning of the word is ‘gathering place’ or ‘assembly.’ The agora was the center of athletic, spiritual and political life of the city. Nearly every city of ancient Greece had an agora by about 600 B.C., when the classical period of Greek civilization began to flourish.

Usually located near the center of town, the agora was easily accessible to every citizen, with a large central square for market stalls bound by public buildings. The agora of Athens, the hub of ancient Greek civilization, was the size of several football fields and saw heavy traffic every single day of the week. Women didn’t often frequent the agora, but every other character in ancient Greece passed through its columns: politicians, criminals, philosophers and traders, aristocrats, scientists, officials and slaves.

Not only did the ancient Greeks go to the agora to pick up fresh meat and some wool for a new robe, but also to meet and greet with friends and colleagues. Regular Athenian citizens had the power to vote for anything and everything, and were fiercely proud of their democratic ways. No citizen was above the law as all laws were posted in the agora for all to see. In fact, Athenians considered it a duty and a privilege to serve on juries. Both the city law courts and senate were located in the agora to demonstrate the open, egalitarian nature of Athenian life.
The Athenian democratic process, whereby issues were discussed in a forum and then voted on, is the basis for most modern systems of governance. (Whipps, 2008)

A Place to Congregate
Various activities occur in democratic spaces where people from all classes of societies can congregate and have insightful conversations, raise awareness and slogans, protest and work for the betterment of Malawi. Nowadays there are hardly any demonstrations occurring in dedicated public spaces fronting legislative buildings or government centers but rather happening on roads, and service areas disrupting traffic and ending in a fruitless end result.

In fact, there are cities where there are hardly any demonstrations either because of the lack of spaces to demonstrate or because of the stringent laws that ban such activities. Another noteworthy reason for the lack of public participation that have rendered legislative assemblies and public spaces fronting such institutions closed to the general public.

The Nature and Scope of Democratic Space
It is a space where all classes of societies can come gather, collaborate, and work for the ‘greater good’ regardless of caste, creed, or religion. Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible citizens are meant to participate equally either directly or, through elected representatives indirectly development or establishment of laws by which their society is run.

Democracy as a performance can be accounted in two main ways: by adding accounts of democratic roles and actors, and of democratic stages. One of the major benefits of the roles and actors distinction was that it helped set up the idea that particular physical stages are required for their performance, following the idea of the scene–act ratio. (Parkinson, 2012)

Space can be ‘public’ in up to four ways; it can have some apparently private features, yet still be public in other respects when we talk of public space, we are talking about space that
has one or more of the following features:

  1. it is openly accessible;
  2. it consumes collective resources;
  3. it has common impacts; and
  4. it is a stage for the performance of public roles.
    Acting Out Democratic Values and Principles
    If politics is physical, democracy is too. Even on a fairly standard, liberal understanding, physical engagement matters to democracy in four major ways. First, the narrative and deliberative phases of democracy work best when conducted face to face, because it increases civility, brings in publicity’s disciplining force, and allows all the non-verbal cues to be transmitted and received. Second, when it comes to making public claims, it is important that claim-makers be seen in dignified, symbolically rich public space so that their claim-making is made obvious to other citizens; to demonstrate to decision-makers the scale of public displeasure; and so that claim-makers themselves get the efficacy benefits that come with being seen to share views with others.

Third, a sense of inclusion and membership of the demos is enhanced when one sees one’s narratives anchored in symbolic, physical form. Even the presence of the marginal in public places is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for them to feel and be recognized as fellow claim makers by other members of the demos.

Fourth, the physical performance of decision-making helps attentive publics perform their scrutiny role, popular decision-making can too easily become hidden, back-room decision-making. Forcing decision-makers into public view helps force decision-making into public view, with all the deliberative benefits of publicity that follow.

What space does liberal, deliberative democracy require for its performance, and how well is that space provided in a selection of cities? We shall be looking at few case studies that show the value of public spaces in the decision-making process.

Public Space in Malawi
Njamba Freedom Park in Blantyre has served the function of a central marketplace as well as a meeting place for the masses. The park has seen countless speeches, demonstrations, parades and other large gatherings, many of which centered crafting Malawi’s political landscape. The name speaks to an increasingly universal phenomenon as well: the public square as an epicenter of democratic expression and protest, and the lack of one—or the deliberate manipulation of such a space—as a way for autocrats to squash dissent through design.

The “publicness” of a space gets mostly measured on the scale of its accessibility, inclusiveness, freedom of expression. The “publicness” can be threatened by increasing control (up to repression), commercialization, and fear. This can be easily applied to any society. The popular way to show public spaces is to address the limitations of access resulting the growing social inequalities and attempts to ‘segregate’ themselves from the undesirables (Low, 1997; Mitchell, 1995).

Malawi is destined to face both the new challenges of capitalist inequalities and the legacies of the totalitarian/ authoritarian past. However, such attempts to measure different historical realities with one scale are not sensitive to different regimes, patterns, and interpretations of ‘public’ space. Public spaces do not have a single definition but differ from place to place. It has been interpreted differently throughout the world. public spaces have not only been transformed to a stage for the nation to showcase its army and host parades on a yearly basis but also acted as a catalyst in changing it from being imperialistic to a more liberalistic country.

In the wake of the post 2019 Elections demonstrations, where there are more people raising their voices and trying to involve themselves for the betterment of the society, it is paramount that there be large dedicated spaces for democratic purposes which not only gather people but overlook the workings of the democratic state.

Using the language of narrative and performance, public space draws on quite a different tradition of democratic thought that focuses on the public sphere, and the many ways in which experiences are shared in public and claims are made on the public. It takes the sites of formal, binding, collective decision-making seriously: one of the central claims is that democracy requires there to be a single, public stage on which decisions are made, tested, and justified.

But it goes well beyond those formal sites to include the broader fields in which citizens meet each other as citizens (i.e. performers of democratic roles) and not just as shoppers or revellers, herdsmen or people watchers. Democracy was born out of the Greek Agoras where the great minds would meet and greet each other and exchange ideas. If we had the same in the 21st century where there is no bridge between the demos and the decision-makers, not only would the world become an egalitarian society but also would be a better place to live in.

*Mayaya is a human rights activist and regular contributor to The Lamp

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.