A Democracy of Chameleons: Politics and Culture in the New Malawi

By Harri Englund | Go to book overview

6.
Are Malawi's Local Clergy
Civil Society Activists?

The Limiting Impact of Creed, Context and Class1
Peter VonDoepp

Introduction

In the early 1990s numerous observers of African politics celebrated the potential for civil society organisations to play transformative roles in African states. Guided by liberal democratic theory and emboldened by actual democratic movements and reform processes in Africa, the call went out for greater scholarly effort to assess and analyse civil society organisations. Nowhere was such attention viewed as more important than in those countries where dictators had fallen and novel challenges of democratic deepening and consolidation had emerged. For while civil society organisations had been integral to the undermining of authoritarian regimes, they could also play a central part in shaping the survival and quality of new democracies (Landell-Mills, 1992; Harbeson, 1994; Diamond 1994; Hadenius and Uggla, 1996).

As the enthusiasm of the early 1990s has faded, many critical commentaries have emerged that have highlighted the very real problems with overly romanticised notions of civil society. As observers have noted, despite the importance of such organisations in the liberalisation of African polities, in the post-authoritarian context civil society has been either unable or unwilling to contribute substantially to ongoing democratisation processes (Boadi 1996; Kasfir 1998). However, while such commentaries have raised important issues, understandings of critical elements of civil society remain relatively shallow. On one hand, very few scholars have examined the nature of civil society in local, as opposed to national, arenas (cf. Comaroff and Comaroff, 1999). On the other, scholars have not delved sufficiently into the dynamics informing the political role of civil society representatives on the ground.

This issue is especially relevant when considering the political role of churches in Malawi. More than any other civil society organisations, churches played a central part in the removal of the single party regime of Kamuzu Banda. Since that time, moreover, they have remained relatively active in politics, establishing civic education programmes and maintaining a prophetic voice which has challenged the behaviour of sometimes irresponsible political elites. Yet a true understanding of the churches' role in the political system—and their contribution to democratic deepening and consolidation—should involve more than an assessment of their activities in the national political sphere. As organisations, churches have considerable potential to shape not only national politics, but also local-level politics. As such, they can have an important impact on both the quality of democracy as experienced by citi-

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1
A revised version of this chapter appears in the Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics Vol. 40, No. 2 (July 2002). The author wishes to thank Harri Englund, Kenneth Wald, Goran Hyden, Philip Williams and Kenneth Ross for their help at various stages of this project. Funding for the research leading to this publication was provided by the Research Enablement Program, a grant programme for mission scholarship supported by the Pew Charitable Trust, and administered by the Overseas Ministries Study Center (New Haven, CT); and from the National Science Foundation (USA), Grant no. INT 9511792.

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