After a few months without a contributor, finally a Malawian Ace has risen up to the challenge of the 100 Voices interview.
My guest today is a businessman who can clearly see the problems facing the country, and has the progress and advancement of Malawi close to his heart. He has established himself in South Africa, and runs a number of businesses there. Mr Elvis Chaweza, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. But before we begin, and for the benefit of those who do not know you, perhaps you could take some time to summarise for us a bit about your background?
I am a Malawian resident in South Africa. I went to Blantyre Secondary school and went on to study Mechanical Engineering at the University of Malawi, The Polytechnic then worked for Lonrho (Makandi Estates) for a short while before coming to South Africa. I have been in South Africa for the past 25 years. I am married with two children, a daughter aged 21 and a son aged 6. I am the CEO and founder of GEBS Group [website here] with interests in the security sector and the manufacturing sector.
1. As a Malawian, how important is Malawi’s Socio-Economic stability to you and your family?
Socio- Economic stability is the backbone of development of any society and it is critical as it affects all spheres of development be it education, employment, health, agriculture, security and so on. Instability in any society starts when there is an imbalance in the social structure which feeds off events in the economic structure. It is important that at a family unit level the socio-economic status enables the family to access the basic needs for the development of the family unit.
2. After nearly 50 years since independence, what visible progress do you think Malawi has made since independence, and in your view, what pressing challenges remain?
Well, it is difficult to point anything that has been significant since one party rule ended in Malawi. Most of the infrastructure that is still of significance to Malawi has the legacy of Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda and in my view, the last 20 years have not seen a continuation of the pace set by the founder leader of the Republic of Malawi. I have not seen infrastructure investment in either vigorously maintaining the existing or building new ones that could have major impact on the economy. Examples are Escom. No future planning was implemented hence the grid is battling to meet demand. We all know that electricity drives the economy of any country and needs careful planning and additional investment all the time.
3. In view of the challenges you describe, what do you think is the role of government and the people in tackling them?
The role of Government is to create a vision that is developmental in nature and create an enabling environment for investors both local and international to invest into the economy. This vision must be biased towards developing infrastructure like the utilities (electricity and water) transportation and communication. These are primary drivers of any economy. The regulatory environment in Malawi is so poor that corruption has become the norm rather than the exception. All spheres of government together with the private sector are so corrupt. It will take a serious introspection to overcome this challenge and it requires a major shift of morals by each Malawian to stem the chronic corruption.
The level of corruption in the country has the potential to create political and social instability if not stopped before the critical mass is reached of the balance of the haves and have-nots.
4. As someone who has lived outside Malawi for a few years and has been exposed to modern and progressive ideas, what things in your present country of residence have had the greatest impact on you, and why?
I think the environment is enabling for one to do different things ranging from further education to entrepreneurship. There is a lot of effort from government to encourage entrepreneurship at grassroots level. It is up to the population to take advantage of the opportunities provided by government.
5. What lessons do you think Malawians and the Malawian leadership can learn from those ideas?
In small economies like Malawi, politics seem to drive everything and this has had a detrimental effect in economic progress as people who should provide continuity have often been found to be lacking in the necessary skills to carry on where others left off. We have come to look at political leadership as something different to business leadership. We have not checked the credentials of political leaders to see if they have those intrinsic abilities to drive the various sectors of the economy. This has resulted in stagnation and massive corruption. If you put someone in charge of people who are better educated than him or her, that person will employ fear to command respect and this has the effect of creating a divide and rule scenario where those who identify with the leader view the better educated members of the team as a threat. So it is important to have a balance to ensure there is no polarisation of forces pulling in opposite directions. Poorly educated individuals should not be allowed to access power as they tend to misinterpret feedback from their environment. This creates sensitivity to their lack of knowledge and as a result they lose focus as they feel vulnerable and losing control. Once that happens dictatorial tendencies kick in and it is downhill all the way. It is far easier to destroy than to build.
6. When you last visited Malawi, what struck you the most as the greatest sign of improvement or development?
I will be honest here, I found that very little if any development has taken place. Educational institutions have been run down. I visited the Polytechnic and had the privilege of going into the “staff room”, a section we hardly were allowed to go in as students in my time and the place had lost its previous glory. It was filthy with broken tiles due to lack of maintenance. This is just one example of the lack of pride the current leadership (from the advent of multiparty democracy) has had in an important institution where future leaders are supposed to be trained. I also observed that the level of poverty has gone up compared to the time I left the country. Political leadership has been preoccupied with bickering and mudslinging instead of directing developmental issues on a tangible course.
7. And what struck you as the biggest sign of stagnation or regression?
Regression in the way the schooling system has been given less or no priority at all. There is a huge sense of ‘them and us’ where people who can afford to send their children to private schools do not care about the child in the village where they came from. There is a huge number of young people who are not adequately educated to meaningfully contribute to the economy.
Skills programmes seem to be non-existent compared to the old days when there was a lot of support from government and industry to keep these institutions running. When you see local musicians being roped in to become law makers and being handed ministerial posts, the question is, are these the best candidates we can put forward as the face of government? Are we serious about managing the country or feeding our ego to say we can do what we like because we have the power?
8. As you know, Malawians will be going to the polls in 2014, to elect a new president. In your view, what kind of leader does Malawi NEED, considering the country’s current challenges?
It is sad that the current politics emphasize on the individual. It has become characteristic that the personality of the political head permeates into every aspect of how government business is done. The ideal leader should be adequately educated. I mean formal education that is no less than a first degree – not honorary degrees which the recent crop of leaders seem to love so much.
The leader must be forward thinking and not use political membership as a ticket to employment for party loyalists. People must be appointed on merit based of their knowledge content and experience in managing an institution be it government or private sector. In that aspect, the leader must be pragmatic enough to appoint key[capable] people in relevant sectors regardless of political affiliation [who have an excellent history and experience in those sectors]. It must be their potential to create positive change that must guide their selection and appointment.
People in leadership must be thoroughly background checked to eliminate the possibility of bringing a hungry person to be in charge of government funds.
People who have been implicated directly or indirectly in corruption whether in government or private sectors must never be given positions of authority at all.
There are plenty of skilled people full of goodwill out there but if you put foolish people into power, they set out to eliminate any possible opposition (better qualified individuals) and put incompetent people into important positions.
No one should feel privileged to occupy a position. People must be there because they deserve to be there and have the desire to serve the country, otherwise you have people who plan and dream about how they are going to praise their leaders, composing songs of praise for the leadership, instead of planning how they are going to work to improve on their mandated deliverables. Remember to be a servant of the people who elected you and not the slave master of the electorate.
9. Specifically, how should that leader approach the top job in terms of sustainable development and reducing aid dependency?
First the leader must embark on clean up of all state organs of all dubious characters. We have seen school dropout musicians becoming ministers in the past and that was indicative of how lacking in vision the leadership was.
Surprisingly Malawians in general embraced these choices of appointments! I was left wondering where is the common man in the street to see that such people will never improve their lot. This is a populist tendency which most uneducated leaders embrace. You should never employ someone who will spend months pinching themselves to see if it is real that they are now a minister – something that never existed in their wildest dreams.
Malawi is a country that is so corrupt to the core and this corruption affects all spheres of government. Judges being bought by the private sector bosses and government officials to settle political scores. People of dubious moral character occupying positions of influence. If this is not cleaned up by the upcoming leader, real transformation will be a pipe dream for Malawians.
On reducing dependency on aid, until the general population sheds the notion that it is okay to be given freebies, we have a long way to go to become independent in the real sense. We should never be comfortable with begging at all. It is a disgraceful activity that deprives you of your independence.
Malawi has resources which if used cleverly, they can improve the economic status.
The coordination of policy to seamlessly integrate all development initiatives in all sectors of the economy will ensure progress. For example you can not grant a mining licence to an investor before you have done an environmental impact assessment to determine whether the roads must be strengthened first.
These two activities belong to different ministries which must work together. In a corrupt society this will never happen.
I will say it again:The leader must be a servant of the people not the other way round.
10. As you know, Tobacco is Malawi’s biggest source of export revenue. Looking at the problems that have plagued the tobacco industry in recent times, what alternatives do you think Malawi has besides Tobacco, and why are they viable alternatives?
First of all tobacco in not food, so developing agricultural products that do not add value to the human body, the first resource of production, is misplaced. Malawi has a lot of fertile soils and an abundance of water.
A clever and innovative combination of these assets can ensure Malawi is self-sufficient in food. When people use their energies to look for food, they will not have time to improve their economic status and surroundings. This feeds into the justification of a beggar mentality. Ironically poverty is now being used as political currency in Africa in general. That is why people want to rule forever instead of passing the baton. They are very uncomfortable to relinquish power that they would rather have a relative take over that a so-called “complete stranger”. If there is no blood line to take over, use someone who looks tame enough to continue the plundering. A friend of mine once told me that he used to refuse taking leave to avoid someone uncovering the skeletons under his desk. This is what corruption does to the leaders who enriched themselves improperly.
Malawi must have the will to [take another look] at the resources it has and use them efficiently to ensure there is economic progress. Transparency is the key.
11. Considering our troubled history with donors and funders such as the IMF and World Bank, most recently when Bingu Wa Mutharika was president, how do you see Malawi progressing from this relationship in view of the criticisms these organisations have received in the media across the world?
Again, beggar mentality must stop from the top. Beggars are lazy people and are easily exploited. You must start from asking people to assist you in building your own sustainable resources with the aim of becoming independent. What the government is doing is like a person who goes to ask for a credit card so they can go drinking beer with the loan. In the end you pay more for the beer which if you first worked to get the money, you would buy it at the correct price. Coming to government, start by developing policy that will improve the economy at a micro level then move to the macro level. Accountability must be the key law makers must not be people who are corruptible.
If government is not made accountable for its expenses the looting cycle will continue.
When leaders find it difficult to explain their wealth, you know you have big problems. Transparency starts with self and the moment you are uncomfortable disclosing how your wealth is made, you should not profess to work for the interest of the people. Change the laws so that floor crossing is illegal and make it easy to impeach a politician if they do not deliver or are suspected of being involved in corrupt activities.
12. We have known for a few years now that Malawi has some precious minerals, including Uranium, possibly oil and other natural resources. How do you think the government is doing regarding managing Malawi’s natural resources, and are they benefitting Malawians in your view?
My take is that it can be better. Malawians are not benefitting because often these investors in these sectors are encouraged to give kickbacks to the government officials in exchange for lax tax incentives. The kickbacks do not go to the government coffers but the back pockets of individuals.
This deprives all Malawians of the tax revenue that would improve education, health, communication etc. Any serious leader would review all agreements the current mineral extractors have in place and revoke any licenses which were fraudulently obtained, review whether the agreements benefit the country or not and correct where necessary. It should not be activists outside government asking for transparency and accountability, it must be the elected parliamentarians demanding this from each other even before the electorate smells it..
13. Can the Malawian government do better to manage natural resources? If so how?
They could by ensuring that the method used to manage the resources does not create secondary negative effects. By insisting on appointing experts in their field to manage these resources instead of appointing party loyalists with no capacity [or proven experience] to manage the resources.
14. We know that corruption is endemic in both the private and public sector in Malawi, and has been plaguing most African governments across Africa, including the government of Malawi. What is your answer to increasing transparency and eradicating corruption?
I think the value system has been eroded so much so that corruption has become the way of life. People no longer think twice swindling their brother of their hard-earned assets. The best way to clean up is to ensure the rules are clear. No leniency in dealing with corruption cases whether private or government sectors. Any system that is weak in ensuring compliance does not work even with the best intentions. Start by striking off the roll all judges implicated in corruption or engaged in unethical behaviour.
If a judge sits on a case for three years without pronouncing his judgement, he is not fit to be a judge unless he can account to the reasons why judgement was not given in the prescribed time frame. If the minister of justice can not hold the judge to account, you know that the minister does not have the powers and therefore his boss must be called to account in this case the president.
15. Any famous last words?
Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that – Norman Vincent Peale
* Emphasis in brackets added.
[Comment: While there are other factors at play, it must be noted that countries who are good at exchanging of ideas, such as Germany, Britain, S. Korea, Norway, Taiwan and the US, are also countries who have very strong democracies and economies, and who are most innovative. As someone who works in Intellectual property, I know this to be true. Their populations are also people who cannot be easily deceived; a factor that breeds responsible governance.
The reason we began the Global 100 Voices interview was to give an opportunity to Malawians across the world to exchange ideas regarding their country’s past, present and future, and to ‘compare notes on what has worked elsewhere’…and by implication, what could work in Malawi.
However, it is disconcerting that few people have been willing to contribute, despite numerous calls. Specifically, no women other than a single individual have up until now offered, or accepted to do the interview??? I’m not saying people don’t have other things to do with their time, but when you are living in a country where conditions are deteriorating every day, isn’t it normal to speak up, and join the hundreds of voices who are demanding action and change? It has been frustrating that the majority of Malawians I meet seem to have passed on the role of advocate (even ideologically) , to the next person …how then will a country improve or even develop, and its problems get rectified if those who are educated, have had exposure, those who are better informed, who have half a chance, are unwilling (or too preoccupied with their own personal matters, etc.) to rise up to the challenge?
Isn’t this the real reason why our politicians take us for granted? Because we are indifferent about the development of our own country (Sometimes, it appears as though certain people are more interested / passionate about luxuries, driving a Mercedes, Sports, etc than demanding responsibility from their government).
To understand my point, then please watch this (especially the last 5 minutes of it):