So much to strike about
If the scenario of labour strikes playing itself across Malawi continues, one day this country will be on its knees...crippled by strikes and burning with frustration and resentment towards the employer.
I have never worked anywhere where I had to resort to a strike to force my employer to pay me more. The reason being simply that if I reckon I'm not being paid enough to afford me cornflakes and milk and meat; I quietly look elsewhere for another job and move on.
Strikes, by their very nature, are disruptive. In South Africa, a strike by miners has cost 44 lives, 34 of them poor miners mowed down in a hail of police bullets.
I have never quite appreciated the logic of destroying what little you have as a protest against not having more of what you want.
In our case, some of the protesting people —especially those in government institutions and parastatals—must know as well as everybody else that enormous amounts of money were stolen and wasted these past few years and that there is precious little left for running even the essential services.
For Joyce Banda and her government, it must be frustrating to know that a percentage of the population is looking to them for a better life and bigger salaries, when it is not them that blew the money away on needless piss ups, like that thing in Nsanje, which is now lying in a state of disrepair, and the AU summit village in Lilongwe, that will lie unused for the most part.
When they bought and you saw them swanning around in those expensive Hummer SUVs on their convoys, that private jet, salaries for their wives, the vast portfolio of real estate they amassed in just a few years, the no-expenses-spared 2009 presidential campaign—that is where the money went. All of that was money either stolen or abused from state coffers.
I'm amazed that in the face of such blatant abuse of state funds, the people remained largely quiet for so long and only started to publicly express their disquiet in the latter half of last year, when the greater damage had already been done to this country and its fragile economy.
Maybe most of the people believed that tosh that Malawi was the 'second-fastest growing economy in the world' so they stayed happily quiet.
And there was yet another lie told, which most again readily believed.
They said—in trying to justify the enormous expense that came with it—that the economy was going to get a boost from the AU summit, scheduled for Lilongwe last July. But now, how does the government explain to civil servants, university professors and parastal workers who are protesting for more pay that there is no money for them because hundreds of millions were blown on a luxury hotel and the redundant 17 presidential villas?
The truth of the matter is that the promise that the event would be great for business and would generate millions of kwacha for our economy was just another gross exaggeration meant to justify runaway expenditure.
Maybe it would have been more prudent for Malawi to decline to invest so much of our money for that summit, by explaining that there was still a lot to be done for the people of this country. But it didn't. And the results are now here for all to see.
In the face of this, the arguments being advanced by some of those leading these strikes are as depressing in some ways as the comments coming from the DPP, the creators of this mess. Many of them are just being hysterical and are, in the process, displaying a deep lack of knowledge when it comes to basic economics. A recurring theme is that since the Kwacha was devalued by 45 percent, salaries should be adjusted by as much.
But we are a country with a bloated civil service, a dwindling tax base, massive expenditure on social programmes, a moribund economy that is just coming out of comatose and a general lack of competitiveness.
If the civil servants get the raise they want, for example, then government will have to find that money elsewhere and in the majority of cases, it has to resort to taxation and that would be disastrous.
Any company that has to borrow money to pay salaries has no business staying in business. It just makes no Economic 101 sense.
This country is destined to go nowhere unless there is a commensurate drop of the attitude and perception that anyone owes anybody a living.
What Malawi needs today are people with sufficient entrepreneurial spirit not to give up and blame the system, but people with the guts to find a way around the rules and go on to become wealthy and highly respected entrepreneurs.
I was invited to dinner at the magnificent family home of one of Malawi's astute business persons just the other day and his story is one worth emulating.
He started small and no fairy godmother appeared to give him the start-up capital and the banks weren't falling over themselves to offer him funding. He had to move mountains to find his own financial backing and now he owns one of Malawi's fastest-growing banks, among others.
I don't know of anyone who has ever started a business that didn't involve risk and a frantic search for funding. So if you have a grand idea, you have to convince potential investors that you have a viable idea, then you have to get them to part with their money and then you have to set up a business that will give a return.
The harsh reality of life is that only the best succeed and fortune favours those who work the hours to get a business running to create both wealth and jobs. And don't even bother to look to the government for help in this matter...most of our politicians couldn't run a village tuck-shop. The best we can hope for is that government creates an environment in which the private sector feels confident enough to invest, expand businesses and create labour opportunities.
Malawians need to be encouraged to come up with ideas of the next big thing, rather than perennially fight the employer for increased pay. If you survive on one paycheck to next paycheck, then you are only one paycheck away from having nothing.
As said, I am not the one to join a strike for more pay. But if I was overworked and underpaid and living on a measly salary with my wife and four children and still had to run around to find medicines for my aging mother from private outlets because pharmacies at government hospitals were empty, I would be really angry.