Sunday 21 January 2018

Pay your heroes: Thoughts Inspired by Antonio Mwanza

Like many people, I was shocked yesterday to learn that Antonio Mwanza, the fiery spokesperson for the Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD), had defected to the ruling Patriotic Front. Mr. Mwanza has been, for the last couple years or so, the face and voice of the FDD -- issuing principled statements against the governance misdeeds of the ruling party. It is not an overstatement to say that the FDD's continued relevance owes much to Mr. Mwanza's lone efforts.

For many, especially young people, Mr. Mwanza had come to embody the manner and style of politics that many yearned for. He rarely, if ever, insulted his political opponents -- choosing instead to focus his attacks on substantive matters. Mr. Mwanza used his Facebook page for the public good often giving free advice to the youth on how to live fulfilling lives in spite of the daily challenges of being young in today's Zambia.

I first met Antonio in 2003 in the dimly lit library of the University of Zambia. It was a Friday evening and ordinarily I should have been out on the town relaxing. But Friday evening was a good time to catch up on the week's newspapers -- the General Reference section where newspapers were displayed was often empty on nights like this.

Antonio was wearing a trench coat and was stooped over The Post reading what looked like the opinion section of the newspaper. This was my first year of study and I had just been introduced to the writings of Karl Marx. Antonio, in his trench coat and pensively reading The Post, struck a resemblance to what I imagined Marx had looked like reading and writing in the British Museum.

I walked up to him and asked if I could look at the parts of the newspaper he'd already read. "Sure, Comrade", replied Antonio. Soon enough a lively discussion broke out between him and I focussed exclusively, as often happened during those days, on Fred M'membe's writings in the newspaper's opinion section. I was immediately struck by Antonio's commitment to the country and to the cause of social justice. His passion for the country and its people seemed to ooze out of every word he uttered that evening. I was therefore not surprised to subsequently see Antonio take up leadership positions in the student movement and later on in the political life of the country.

What happened yesterday is certainly a blow to the cause for democracy in Zambia. There have been very few Antonios in our country's young democracy and yesterday we lost yet another one. Mr. Mwanza claims he will be able to criticise from within the PF but this is highly unlikely. Our politics are sadly typified by toeing the party line.

Many have tried to make sense of why Mr. Mwanza would join a party whose principles seemed to be diametrically opposed to everything that he stood for. The one reason that pops up here and there is one of finances. Perhaps Mr. Mwanza had hit on hard times and the only way out was to join the ruling party?

It's not easy being in the opposition in a country where economic fortunes are highly dependent on one's alignment with the powers that be. Nason Msoni, himself a critic of government and veteran of the opposition, thinks Mr. Mwanza's defection has much to do with economics. In a widely debated and widely shared Facebook posting he had this to say:

Opposition politics entails a lot of personal sacrifices. Sometimes [opposition] leaders fail to take their children to good schools and sacrifice their little earnings to help fight for us.
Opposition leaders don't get paid whilst carrying out national duties. At the same time no employers are willing to employ an opposition leader to risk their investment or give them business.

Mr. Msoni's posting (and you should read the entirety of it alongside the comments on his wall) is heartbreaking. We expect so much from the likes of Antonio Mwanza but care so little about their personal circumstances.

In economics, a public good is a good where its provider doesn't capture the full benefits of providing the good. Clean air is an example of a public good. If I took it upon myself to provide clean air, the benefits would accrue to me but also to millions of Zambians. Some people would pay me for the clean air but others wouldn't. Because of this, I would under supply the required amount of clean air and in the extreme provide nothing.

Because of the peculiar nature of public goods, their supply has to be subsidised by the public treasury otherwise very little to nothing will be provided. (Additional examples of public goods are education, healthcare, defence and security, etc...).

What Mr. Mwanza was doing falls right within the realm of a public good. His criticisms and political commentary served to enrich our democratic dispensation from which all of us would benefit. But only a few (if at all any) of these benefits would accrue to Mr. Mwanza for as long as he continued to be in the opposition.

We need to find a way of paying for our heroes if we want them to continue fighting for us. This is why I support those parts of the Political Parities Bill that provide for the public funding of political parties (we can debate the specifics of how this is to happen in practise but we should, at the very least, agree on the principle). And by the way, this discussion should not just end at political parties but should extend to civil society organizations that are everyday involved in the very important but financially unrewarding fight of making Zambia a better place.

Otherwise we will keep losing the likes of Antonio.