People who lived through the early 1990s in Malawi remember well the sense of elation and freedom that followed the vote at the 1993 Referendum in favour of multi-party democracy. One of my own memories from that time is of my colleague John Parratt, on a return visit to Zomba, leafing through the Bible to find the verse in Psalm 124 that says, “We have escaped like a bird from the hunter’s net; the net is torn and we have escaped.” The ancient text captured the prevailing feeling.
For old-stagers like me there has been a certain sense this week of re-living this experience with another vote and another dramatic change in the political landscape. A striking feature of the political change that occurred in the early 1990s was the role of the churches. People knew that change was needed but could not see where the agency would come from. In the event it proved to be the churches that had the moral and spiritual resources needed to challenge and replace the one-party system.
In 2020 once again at the centre of things is an interplay between church life and political life. This time it has occurred in the form of electing a pastor, Dr Lazarus Chakwera, to the Presidency. Malawians have been bitterly disappointed with the quality of their political leadership. Despite the democratic structures that have been in place since 1994 there has been a prevailing political culture that has resulted in a form of leadership that is all about rewarding and enriching the leaders and their cronies. Deeply disillusioned, Malawians have been looking for a different kind of leadership without knowing where it would come from.
Once again, in the event it has come from the life of the church. After leading his church, the Assemblies of God, for twenty-five years Lazarus Chakwera sensed that what he had learned about leadership in the church could be applied to the nation. Time and again he has talked of servant leadership – of the duty of political leaders to be driven by a sense of service to the people, rather than pursuing their own interests. The recent election demonstrated that this is what the people of Malawi are looking for.
Of course, it is one thing to promise and another to deliver. All too many political leaders have begun with inspiring rhetoric only to discover that power corrupts when they have got into office. Malawi needs political leadership that does not disappoint. The prayers of many are supporting Dr Chakwera as he takes up this challenge.