Modernization in Malawi is not done in the Western technocratic way, but in a Malawian way that combines modernization with Malawian cultural tradition in ways that combine in a peculiar way. Institutions and political actions are being shaped according to the existing Malawian situation. This has led to a specific form of political institutions and shaped actions in an informal, personalized way, along traditional Malawian practice.
The communal Malawian society was the way to keep the traditional village society running. Here is was functional. But first came the slave traders upsetting the balance, then the British Colonial Masters interfered. They brought indirect rule, they brought capitalism with its enhanced inequality. They brought fire arms. They brought mass society.
In this constellation it is both accepted and advantageous to operate according to logics of both capitalism and communal tradition in all areas of life including business and politics. Malawians are no more traditional (or backward) than other world citizens. To the contrary: it is justifiable and advantageous in Malawian conditions, to follow Malawian practices, built on both capitalism and Malawian tradition.
Cultural factors are no more or no less important in Malawi than they are anywhere else. It is the way these traditions combined with capitalism and are being turned into political tools.
The colonial indirect rule, which was supported by the British Army’s fire power, greatly increased inequality, and the reciprocity that goes with a communal society evolved, until it deformed into the current form: nepotism, corruption, inefficiency, allowance hunting, theft, procurement fraud and more.
Of course politics in Malawi is no more isolated from society as it is elsewhere. All political actors, from the ruling political class to the common Malawian like the smallholder farmer, organically combine the political and the personal; they act accordingly, employing the situation to their needs: chaos is utilized politically.
Inside these communal politics we should look beyond the individual: multi party democracy functions differently in Malawi than in Western countries.
A communal culture is inevitably based reciprocity. Reciprocity influences all relationships, including the political. Political support to rulers is given in exchange for reciprocal support. The other way round: benefits are given out by the political ruling class in the understanding that they will be reciprocated with political support. Elections and patterns of voting are shaped by this reality.
Inequality dominates (almost) all post-colonial social relationships, especially between the population and the ruling political class. Political support thus becomes personalized and empty of political ideology. Rulers have an incentive to adopt the role of the Big Man, because they are expected to do so by the population, in order to keep the patrimonial status-quo stable. There is no political or social incentive to make personal political relations more formal.
In Malawi, success is equated with consumption, not with production. This standard opposes development. The Big Man is viewed as the standard of “Success”; “Success” is expressed in conspicuous consumption. This incentivises rulers to practice hand-outs to support their neo-patrimonial rule, instead of producing something useful.
Short term thinking takes precedence over long term development planning (for the country, the person or the business). This inhibits change (it prevents the often touted “business UN-usual”)
Chaos becomes a political instrument, used to perpetuate the dependency of the population on the person of the patron. Clientelism takes over, development never takes off.
Because chaos becomes a political resource, there is no incentive for the ruling political class to work for a more impersonal institutionalized just order of society. In the absence of any other viable way of obtaining the means needed to sustain neo-patrimonialism, there is inevitably a tendency to link politics to realms of increased disorder: corruption, inefficiency, ineffective policies, creation of an implementation gap, crime, legal arbitrariness. The common population is also caught in this trap: the best (often the only) way to survive is to go along with the neo-patrimonial (clientelistic) order. This feeds the hand-out mentality, thus sustaining the vicious cycle. Only when the common Malawian population finds an incentive to reject the system of personalized politics, to question the legitimacy of the present use of chaos as a political tool and to struggle for actual political accountability, systemic change will get a chance to take hold, and meaningful development can start taking off.