Seriously Kalaki: Mysterious and Silent Happenings
I had a strange experience on Tuesday last week. I went to the Alliance Francaise to attend a public meeting due to begin at 18.30h, only to find a notice on the door saying that the meeting had been cancelled.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) had organized this public meeting to discuss whether or not to urge the cabinet to invoke the provisions of Article 36 of the constitution, where a medical board is required to be appointed if there is a serious concern about whether the president has the physical or mental capacity to fulfill his duties.
The first strange thing about the cancellation was that the notice on the door merely said that the meeting had been cancelled ‘because the Alliance Francaise remains a non-political organisation’. There are various strange things about this. MISA had booked the room for a series of monthly public meetings to ‘discuss current affairs and topical issues’, which would clearly tend to concentrate on political issues.
Secondly, being a non-political organisation is no bar to allowing the premises to be used for a political discussion. If Alliance Francaise is itself non-political, this merely means that it does not itself assume any particular ideological or political position, and in particular that it is above party politics. It does not mean that discussion on political matters cannot take place on its premises. In fact, politics is intrinsic to all aspects of human life so it is impossible for a cultural organisation to ignore the political element in culture.
Attached to the wall outside the office of the Director of Alliance Francaise is displayed a copy of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’ of 1789 – perhaps one of the most famous documents in political history, of which the French are rightly proud. Although it is not clear that the Alliance Director is rightly proud, because he effectively shat on that proud document when he cancelled the meeting. Article 11 of the Declaration states that:
‘The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.’
The fact that Alliance Francaise is a non-political organisation does not give it any right to censor or cancel the ‘free communication of ideas and opinions’ enshrined in Article 11, or in Article 20 of the Zambian Constitution. Even a hotel may legitimately claim to be ‘non-political’ in the sense that it is non-party political, but it is nonetheless entitled and completely justified to provide space for public political discussion, or even party political meetings, provided of course that it does not discriminate against particular parties or opinions when making space available.
Even MISA Zambia, which organized the meeting, is similarly a non-political organization. As the word ‘media’ suggests, MISA is importantly concerned with providing a medium for the transmission of different ideas, and to allow the government to hear the voice of the people. On this occasion the topic was more than merely political, being primarily a burning constitutional issue where there is much concern in the country that the cabinet is deliberately declining to do its constitutional duty. And this is in a matter of the gravest importance, such that without proper determination of the matter it is not clear who is currently in charge of the government or the country.
So why did the hapless Director so easily disgrace himself? The answer, of course, is that he was leaned on. He was threatened. History, for one little moment in his otherwise humdrum life, had thrust him into the limelight. And did he rise heroically to the occasion and defend the ‘Rights of Man’? No, of course not. He thought of his lovely building and the nice sculptures. He thought of his wife and children at home. He thought of his pension and retirement villa in the South of France. His feet went cold, he began to shake, and he buckled. Do not sneer. Think of yourself. Do you want to be a hero?
But if we are to give the poor fellow his due, we can assume that he did not easily or lightly abandon the precious ‘Rights of Man’ that he had previously hung so proudly on his wall. We must assume that he had his reasons. He was, of course, leaned on. But who leaned on him remains a matter of speculation. I do know that he got a phone call at about 17.00h, and that by 17.30h he had got the cancellation notice stuck on his front door. He also sent a notice to the Watchdog, which had advertised the meeting, telling them that Alliance Francaise is a non-political and non-secular organization. Of course he meant to say non-religious, which is the opposite of non-secular, but be sympathetic, the poor fellow was in a bit of a tizz.
So leaned on him? This we shall perhaps never know. This government, which promised a Freedom of Information Act, which it hasn’t given us, is very secretive about everything. We may presume that it is very secretive because it has done so many things that it doesn’t want us to know about. Maybe the police phoned the Director. Maybe the shushushu phoned Foreign Affairs that phoned the French Embassy that phoned Alliance Francaise. Who knows how a police state works? Maybe the poor Director got six different phone calls from six different authorities, each of which imagined that it was in charge, and each threatening him with a different consequence. The essential element of a successful police state is that nobody really knows how it works, which makes it very difficult to dismantle it. It might even take over power from the very people who imagine they are controlling it!
And so, that evening, a couple of hundred people pitched up to give their opinion on the subject advertised for discussion, but the government acted to make sure that their voices were not heard. Apparently our voice should be heard only at election time, and in between elections we are supposed to say nothing, and instead just listen to the voice of government. Except that, at the moment, we can’t hear the voice of government. It has fallen silent. All that remains are mysterious and silent happenings.
Oh yes, one more thing: don’t blame the hapless little French Director. It is our job as Zambians to fight for our rights, not the job of the French Director. He is non-political. And he is frightened. Are you?
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