At what cost?

Malawi’s decision to send more than than 200 people to work on Israel’s farms sets a precedent for other African leaders to act with the same apathy.

Soybean farmer walking through a field in Malawi. Image credit Mitchell Maher for the International Food Policy Institute via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

Two months is too long to watch a state-sanctioned, televised genocide. In Cape Town, I see Gaza on a small screen. In between photographs of a lush exhibition opening or a lavish brunch, I see children shaking with shock on hospital floors; in calmer moments, small citizens clap with their mothers at a birthday, their backdrop the rubble. One video shared again and again: a grandfather kissing his granddaughter, his soul of his soul, her perfect pigtails betraying her lifeless cheeks; later, he pierces his pocket with her earring stud. Her memory lives. Families die. The bombings, the babies, the babies. I am at a loss for words. Two months is too long but this devastation is far older. 

Two years ago, in the midst of the pandemic, Palestine was rubbled. Sisonke Msimang wrote stirringly about how the images and videos “dislodged something” in her, and here we are again, with more children fluent in the flutter of pamphlets and the shelling of homes. But before this moment, many years before, the Nakba. Seventy-five years of war and displacement and exile. In a recent post, Mona Chalabi compares 75 days of 1.9 million people displaced with 75 years of people forced from their homes. The dual displacement underscores the depth and breadth of pain that this region holds. And yet, and still, once more, the people of Palestine continue to forge their lives through their losses. 

The world has not watched without action. Artists have gathered, making tote bags to raise funds for Gift of the Givers (a South African disaster relief organization). Activists meet weekly, with an interfaith Shabbat in the Cape Town suburbs of Sea Point, Claremont, and Observatory. People have protested, flooding streets with flags and placards and prayers and songs. Doctors have remained committed to the lives of their patients, at risk of their own. International agencies such as WHO, WFP, Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations have attempted to intervene. Palestinian journalists are killed on duty and media outlets such as Democracy Now and Al Jazeera continue to report from the safety of elsewhere. Where we see harmful inaction and the utter disregard of life is in leaders who have lost their way. Netanyahu and Biden aside, Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera has joined the ranks of statesmen who support and are supported by apartheid. 

My president, with his suspectly southern drawl, has decided to put his citizens at risk because his government is not holding our country together. At the end of November, BBC Africa reported that Chakwera et al have already sent more than 200 young Malawians to Israel to work on its farms. They plan to send up to 5,000 Malawians to work next to war. God forbid they become collateral for a conflict they did not cause. Ostensibly, Chakwera’s decision could be rooted in the Government of Malawi’s perplexing but persistent brand of Christian Zionism. Charles Pensulo reports that “During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Organisation of African Unity, the forerunner of the African Union, severed ties with Israel. Only four African countries remained steadfast. Malawi was one of them.” 

Our pastor, the president, has continued the tradition of maintaining diplomatic ties with Israel since independence in 1964. But this does not seem to me a moral or religious decision; it is economic. With the recent devaluation of the Kwacha, plummeting by 44% overnight, it is no wonder that there is a desperate demand for work to sustain the lives of young Malawians. It is also no surprise that there are reports of Malawi receiving $60 million from Israel in the wake of this labor agreement. The details of this deal are as yet unknown. 

What I know without access to government documents is that Malawi benefited from apartheid long before this November. When we consider Chakwera’s decision from a historical perspective, he is not the first Malawian president to gain from apartheid. His Malawi Congress Party was criticized for colluding with the National Party government of South Africa many decades ago. The origins of my hometown, Lilongwe, was an ode to apartheid by the Ngwazi, Hastings Kamuzu Banda. For as long as I lived in Area 3, I did not know that my city was developed with funding from the National Party. Of course, I noticed that across the bridge, in Area 2, the homes and stores were predominantly Indian, but I did not realize that this was a structurally engineered distinction between population groups. Blantyre was the first colonial town of Malawi, but Lilongwe was its new capital city. Seemingly a postcolonial production, Evance Mwathunga and Ronnie Donaldson describe Lilongwe as a segregated city:

Lilongwe as a colonial town depicted colonial modernist planning which was characterized by residential segregation. Like colonial Blantyre, Lilongwe was sliced into a European zone, an Asian zone, and the African zone. Also, the spatial allocation of facilities such as hospitals, schools and recreation facilities (e.g. golf clubs) was based on this zoning whereby the best facilities were allocated in the European zone while their African counterparts only had minimal services.

As long as it did not affect him, Banda did not seem to mind these distinctions. Chakwera follows this dictator’s footsteps a little too closely. He seems comfortable with the segregation and subordination of Palestinians by the Israeli state. He sets a precedent for other African leaders to act with the same apathy. Kenya follows Malawi’s lead to send farm workers to Israel. Recruitment is taking place in Tanzania, despite the death of Clemence Felix Mtenga, a Tanzanian student who had been living in Kibbutz Nir Oz for two months when he was killed after the Hamas attack. 

What are we to do with such news? We watch. More people die. We find words. We lose them. We will not look away. 


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