My lifetime hero, Benjamin Franklin, uttered eternal truth in his Poor Richards’ Almanac when he said the golden age is never present. We have often heard of the good ol’ days. Only rarely, if at all, do we hear people speaking of the present times as the best ever.
Perhaps 50 or 100 years to come, people in Malawi will be talking of the advent of multiparty era as the golden age and look to it with nostalgia. This will depend on how more disturbing the social milieu will be that time.
I would not say life in Malawi has reached the stage where Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher and author of The Leviathan described as solitary, nasty, brutal and short. But most people in urban centres live with the adage chaona mnzako chapita mawa chili pa iwe. That which has happened to your friend or neighbour has gone, tomorrow it will be upon you.
Violent robberies and burglaries are too frequent for any rational person never to bother. Indeed, where law and order is concerned, some senior citizens in Malawi may point to the past when life was safer, crime has increased, is increasing, it must be halted so that we may enjoy the few years that the Almighty has prescribed for everyone of us.
What is crime? It is an act committed or omitted in violation of a law. A law itself is a formal social rule that is enforced by a political authority such as a police officer and a magistrate.
Some laws were enacted to enforce ethics or morals. It is unlikely that society has ever condoned murder or theft. But there are crimes which have been necessitated by industrial growth, urbanisation and politics. There were no traffic laws until the automobile was invented, no anti-pollution until industries were set up and no slander or libel laws until people were engaged in politics.
In advanced countries, such as those of the West, criminologists have at one time or another coined theories. In the time of Jesus Christ, people in Palestine were vexed by what they called evil spirits. Although such beliefs are not widely held in industrialised countries we hear of satanic rituals.
In the 1930s, there was wide belief among psychologists that criminals were basically feeble-minded people. Those who espoused Marxist-Leninist ideologies believed that crime was a result of the class structure of society, that those who engaged in crime were victims of capitalist oppression. Therefore, liquidate the burgeoisie, have a classless society and there will be no criminals. Communism, in its Marxist and Leninist forms has collapsed, as there is nothing to borrow from such theories.
What we experience nowadays are two types of crimes, each apparently subject to an explanation of its own. There are crimes by poor people such as burglary, robbery with violence and pilfering. There are also white-collar crimes committed by middle class or rich people. The latter are corruption of the Cashgate types, false advertisement, treason, fraud and tax evasion.
We are quick to assert that a jobless person has been involved in a robbery because he suffers the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing yet not all poor people engage in crimes. Indeed, if an accused burglar pleaded hunger in mitigation, a magistrate is not likely to be impressed.
White collar criminals are motivated by avarice. Those who engaged in the Cashgate scandals were not facing starvation. Some held top positions in the civil service while others were operating successful businesses. They just wanted to grow wealthier. It was a matter of greed.
We look to the police and the courts to enforce the law against those who break it. But there are glaring acts and omissions.
There are some minibus crimes which the police should unmake, having made them. Arresting minibus drivers for collecting passengers at prohibited places should be subjected to regular revision.
In short, let us not turn innocent people into criminals by making laws or regulations which are inconvenient.