/ 23 April 2024

Malawi is on the wrong side of history again

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Palestinians who left their homes and took refuge in Rafah try to survive under harsh conditions in makeshift tents they set up in the empty land as Israeli attacks continue on Gaza on April 22, 2024. (Photo by Hani Alshaer/Anadolu via Getty Images)

An independent and sovereign state such as Malawi has every right to make decisions that are beneficial to its people and demonstrate a commitment to humanity. But there is nothing more despicable than the country again being on the wrong side of history.

There is no excuse or justification for Malawi to make the same mistake that was made during the reign of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), in the 1960s.

The state of Israel and Malawi have had a long-standing diplomatic relationship since 1964, even though most African countries severed ties with Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. 

Critics also accused Malawi of undermining regional efforts to isolate and sanction apartheid South Africa. 

Now, in the midst of Israel’s war on Gaza, Malawi and Israel signed a labour export deal in 2023, which allows Malawian workers to travel to Israel for employment, particularly in the agriculture sector.

 It seems that history is repeating itself under the leadership of President Lazarus Chakwera, of the MCP. 

South Africa took the state of Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over Israel’s actions in Gaza, after the 7 October 2023 attack by Hamas, in which about 1,200 people were killed and others taken hostage. The ICJ ruled that the state of Israel was committing plausible genocide in Gaza. The attacks on Gaza, and the aid restrictions, have led to the deaths of more than 34,000 Palestinian civilians in the past six months. 

The verdict of the ICJ on this matter, reflected the overwhelming international support and solidarity with the people of Palestine, by almost all the nations of the world, with the exception of the United States and most of the West. 

Malawi’s labour export deal has been controversial, with Malawians expressing concerns about the safety of workers travelling to Israel during the Israel-Hamas war. As if this is not enough, on 18 April 2024, Malawi opened its embassy in Tel Aviv while Israel continues to bomb Gaza, killing and displacing millions of the Palestinian people. 

The fundamental question that arises from this situation deals with the lack of morality for a country led by a Christian pastor, Chakwera, who should know better about injustices.

Evidently the reason for such a deal to occur is labour export has generated foreign exchange earnings for Malawi, with about $735,000 transferred to the country as of 14 February 2024. 

Chakwera and his administration should realise that there are certain things that money cannot buy. Instead of Malawi condemning Israel’s aggression on Gaza, it opted to sell its soul for 30 pieces of silver.

Malawi under Banda was the only African country to maintain close relations with the apartheid regime of South Africa. This was right up until the 1994 elections when Nelson Mandela became president of a democratic South Africa. The rationale for this position by Malawi was economic rather than morality. 

For example, the exporting labour from Malawi to South Africa continued even after the independence of Malawi in 1964. In 1971, at the height of apartheid, Banda became the first black president to visit South Africa. And a year prior to this visit, South Africa’s then prime minister, John Voster, came to Malawi. 

Statistics show that from 1988 to 1992, about 13,000 Malawian labourers in South Africa were repatriated. 

As defeat for the apartheid regime was on the horizon the Malawian government went to great lengths to correct its position on South Africa. Soon after his release from prison and before he became president of South Africa, Malawi hosted Nelson Mandela. Malawi argued that this was necessary to promote economic development and protect its interests. 

Since Malawi and South Africa held their first multi-party democratic elections in 1994, they have both enhanced relations. But the stain of having supported the apartheid regime until its collapse still hangs over Malawi’s history. 

Any well-meaning African would have hoped that Malawi learned a great deal from the terrible mistake of maintaining relations with apartheid South Africa. But it is clear that the ruling Malawi Congress Party has learnt nothing from history. Their actions in support of Israel is evidence enough for such a claim. 

That same path set out by Malawi during its infant years as an independent state has come full circle in 2024. The support for Israel is equivalent to the support for apartheid South Africa no matter how anyone sugar coats it or seeks to make the distinction between the two. 

Malawi will do well to correct its mistakes regarding Israeli atrocities in Gaza. 

Aaron Ng’ambi is a geopolitical analyst, leadership instructor and a social entrepreneur.