African Press International (API)

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Posted by African Press International on September 1, 2007

Visual aids can be anything from the way one dresses, to writings on any flat surface, party colours, party emblems, to items brought in to show what you are talking about. They support the expressive and receptive communicative needs of presenters, teachers, politicians, or individuals in general. In other words, they are nonverbal symbols that reach the audience via the eyes thereby helping them decode meaning from a particular context. As such, they carry meaning whether positively or negatively. It is the purpose of the present work to discuss visual aids or messages communicated by political parties in Malawi.

In order to understand how visual aids carry meaning, theres a need to understand the basic vocabulary of visual language. By visual language one refers to the idea that communication occurs through visual symbols, as opposed to verbal symbols, or words.

Presenters, teachers, or politicians who understand nonverbal language, especially visual language can and do manipulate attitudes of their audience to suit their purposes. This is so because naturally humans respond to visual messages unconsciously, preferring to believe that their opinions are formed by their own judgment and personal taste.

For example, the body language, party colours, party emblems, dress, and expressions of politicians in the modern age of democratic Malawi seem to be as crucial to the success of a particular partys programme. This also plays a role towards the policies and ideas particular political parties hold. Once the politicians send wrong nonverbal signals, the populace simply does not trust them on whatever platform they may be presenting their ideals.

Visual messages sent through the emblem or colour associated with a particular political party also play a vital role to either build or destroy political groupings.

On the other hand, effective use of visual aids (party colours, party emblems etc) can make listeners overlook a great deal in a politicians or political partys background.

To exemplify this, an experience from Malawi would suffice. Evidently the Malawis transformation from one party state to multiparty government portrayed a clear example of this situation. The Malawi Congress Party (MCP) which was then the only ruling party in Malawis one party system of government was using a Black Cock as an emblem for the party. Furthermore a slogan kwacha was used in whatever activities the party was conducting.

During the transitional period, new political groupings were formed to advocate for multiparty democracy. These new groupings were known as Political Pressure Groups. They used a lighted lamp as their visual aid (emblem). Therefore two emblems were at play, black cock vs lighted lamp.


In most cases black is associated with attire used during times of bereavement. Satanism acts are also associated with black colour. The black cock emblem for Malawi Congress Party was the target by underground pressure groups to champion the fight for introduction of multiparty politics in a country which was under one-party authoritarian rule since its independence from the British colonial rule in 1964 under Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda and his Malawi Congress Party (MCP). This was done to effectively sell the idea of multiparty system of government.

The party was associated with evil acts such as murdering its people once they happen to oppose bad policies, throw its critics into Shire River so that they become feed for crocodiles. Simply put, the black cock visual image carried negative messages which to most Malawians was very clear. There was correlation between the black cock and the bad things that were happening during the one rule.

As a result Malawi Congress Party lost during a referendum. The Political Pressure Groups showed and told Malawians about the hidden bad meanings /messages of the black cock.

On the other hand, the lighted lamp emblem for the Political Pressure Groups communicated messages of hope or light at the end of the tunnel. Light is associated with good things. As such a brighter future was talked of by the Pressure Groups.

Showing and telling has been discussed by researchers that it leads to higher retention after some considerable time period. People retain information longer when they receive it both through their eyes and through their ears. Visual aids of the black cock did not require to be carried around. Black cock emblem was in each and every place in Malawi. All the Political Pressure Groups had to do was to ask Malawians to check for it in their party member cards or national flag by then which previously had black cock on it. Audiences that remember a message because the visual aids helped their comprehension or understanding, are more persuaded to take action for change. That is why countrywide they voted for change.

All paraphernalia for MCP had black cock and were likened to satanic worship which demand for use of black attire or black everything everywhere. These negative relationships made Malawians dissociate themselves from Malawi Congress Party. And it lost its massive countrywide support. Black cock was correlated to cruelty, oppression, nepotism, murder and monopoly.

The black cock visual image destroyed Malawi Congress Party. Who would be happy to be associated with negative visual images? MCPs visual symbols turned into its visual distractions or destructions.


After a successful transition into multiparty democracy, MCP confessed to the whole nation that it has now changed. It has become a new MCP.

The nation has been trying to look for that rebirth in MCP. One wonders whether MCP is portraying that new self which has been talked of quite often.

As I have indicated at the beginning that for a very long time visual language has been used to encode meaning. Wikipedia contends that vision gives humans inexhaustibly rich information about the objects, events, political parties or peoples behaviour in the world.

Simple language a picture is worth a thousand words. The body language, dress and expressions of any MCP political leader inside or outside parliament speaks to viewers louder beyond mere words in the multiparty era of government.

What is in an individuals mind may be manifested through his/her actions, utterances and body language thereby sending visual messages.

During 2007 budget sitting, the leader of opposition in parliament who happens to be MCP leader has communicated to the entire nation his self image. Standing on a point of order Section 65 first, budget second. This expressed and communicated a visual message that as a leader John Tembo considers political struggles or power very important above the needs of Malawians. These needs are met by availability of the national budget.

Only that time when the leader of opposition rose up and said no to budget, till injunction on Section 65 is vacated- did he destroy most his reputation and dignity in the eyes of Malawians thereby minimizing his chances of testing the fruits of the highest office on the land.

The tone in this leaders response communicated more bitterness, anger and uncontrollable ambitions by the leader of opposition to Malawians.

My simple message to opposition leaders is Malawians have been observing, read the writings on the walls. Otherwise your visual messages will be eating you out and it will be difficult to regain any lost glories.


It is believed that the United Democratic Front (UDF), Malawis former ruling party which is seeking to extend its mandate in the 2009 presidential and parliamentary elections, was founded by Brown Mpinganjira, now not very vocal as he used to be when he formed his defunct NDP. Mpinganjira himself has never at any time confirmed or denied the assertion. Under this, visual messages of unclear genesis is evidently communicated.

While the beginnings of the party are scanty, its President and National Chairman Bakili Muluzi claims he is its founder, saying he formed it as a pressure group in 1989.

The UDF and Alliance For Democracy (AFORD) emerged from underground and started campaigning vehemently for change after the Catholic bishops issued an epic pastoral letter in March 1992, criticizing the MCP government of human rights abuse and bad governance, the first ever open challenge Dr. Bandas one-party rule ever faced since independence.

The pastoral letter opened the way for more debate on whether or not the country should remain a dictatorship or embrace multiparty democracy. As pressure piled up, Banda cracked and later ordered that a referendum take place in June 1993.

When the referendum finally did take place, Malawians overwhelmingly voted for change. That spelt the beginning of the end for Dr. Banda and his MCP.

When the first multiparty general elections were held a year later, in 1994, the UDF scored a landslide victory and wrested power from the MCPs 30-year stranglehold.

Under Muluzi, the party started well with a lot of promises such as free primary education, poverty alleviation, better social services, good roads, respect for human rights and the rule of law. This sound beginning sent a very upright visual message to Malawians. A bright future that Malawians were anticipating seemed eminent. But later it was evident that instead of bright things, yellowing of everything was coming out.

Ten years down the line, Malawians got disillusioned that they are poorer than they were 10 years ago, according to a UNDP report.

The party with its yellow colours started to lose its grip on the reins when in 2001 its President Bakili Muluzi wanted to manipulate the constitution of the land allowing for open terms rather than the mandatory two five-year terms to give him a chance to continue ruling the country.

After facing strong resistance from the opposition and some rebel UDF MPs, the open-terms bill finally collapsed in parliament in July 2002. Not admitting defeat, the government side drafted another bill to allow the president a third term. This, too, received massive resistance from the opposition and civil society. Sensing another eminent defeat, the government withdrew the bill before it was debated in parliament.

Knowing he would not be given another mandate to rule, Muluzi then handpicked economist Bingu Mutharika in 2003 to his successor,a move which many view as undemocratic. This led to some heavyweights in the party resigning to join the opposition. Simply put, these painted a different visual image for the UDF party. Party officials felt betrayed thereby leading to massive exodus.

Among them are First Vice President Aleke Banda, senior cabinet minister Harry Thomson, former deputy finance minister Jan Jaap Sonke, former deputy agriculture minister Joe Manduwa and most recently Justin Malewezi, vice-president of UDF and state.

With all these defections, the UDF party surely lost the popular support it used to in its heady days.

The yellow colour was associated with leaves of plants during wilting stages. Plant leaves are green but when they turn yellow, it means that they will fall off the plant to later die and decompose. This analogy was likened to UDF. A party that has matured and is now wilting or dying- waiting for regeneration of new leaves. The new growths are the new political parties that have emerged out of UDF.


The new government in Malawi, democratically elected in May 2004, is pursuing an agenda that focuses on growth, wealth creation, and poverty reduction. It recognizes that corruption is a widespread and endemic problem that must be addressed in order for Malawi to realize sustainable economic growth.

After taking office, Mutharika came into conflict with Muluzi, head of the UDF, over Mutharikas campaign against corruption. The dispute between them has characterized Mutharikas time in office thus far, and it has been claimed that political conflict is interfering with the countrys governance.

On February 5, 2005, Mutharika announced his resignation from the UDF, saying that he had no support in the party because of his stand against corruption. There had previously been talk of expelling him from the party, and there had also been an alleged assassination plot against him by party members in early January 2005. Those accused were later pardoned by Mutharika, but he maintained the existence of the plot. Mutharika subsequently formed his own party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). In April 2005, Muluzi apologized to the country for choosing Mutharika as his successor and imposing him on the country. This communicated an affirmation of Muluzis failure to rule from behind as was previously reported.

Mutharika has upheld the memory of Hastings Banda as a national hero; in May 2006, he was present at the unveiling of a mausoleum for Banda that cost US$620,000. This has earned him high repute and esteem amongst Malawians but mostly people from Central Region.

Through the DPP led government, Malawi has attained debt cancellation, food security, single digit inflation rate, and some sound economic growth. These have communicated a good and sound visual message to the people of Malawi. Message of trust, security, development in most fronts, brighter Malawi and hope.

Dr. Bingu Wa Mutharika administration does not practice favouratism in terms of distribution of development activities. For example, each and every constituency is treated with equal measures when it comes to project distribution. Dedza central , a constituency of Honourable John Tembo-leader of opposition in parliament has benefited from these development projects. Mangochi has seen establishment of new food silos though being a stronghold of UDF an opposition political party.

Neno district is a constituency under an opposition MP but it has received development projects. Unlike during UDFs rule where Bakili Muluzi would openly say during his public rallies that where there is an opposition MP, there shall be no development activities.

The stand of DPP on development for all regardless of political parties dominant in that area is a clear visual message for a political party that puts every Malawian at heart. A party whose central focus is on Malawians. This visual aid has helped to build DPP into a strong political party as it enjoys support nationwide though being very new on the scene as compared to other political parties which have failed to penetrate Malawi in all the three regions such AFORD, RP, PETRA, UDF, MCP and PPM .

DPP is doing everything it can to protect this visual language that it has already communicated to the entire Malawi nation. For example, when Regional Governor for the South Nyakamera was quoted as saying no coupons for traditional authorities who support opposition political partiesthe DPP came on the scene instantly with a refutation. The partys secretary general Honourable Hetherwick Ntaba came up with a press statement to refute media reports on the same.

It is very essential to jealously guard the visual message a political party sends out. DPP is aware of this that is why it resorts to every means and ways to protect and safeguard it.

From this discussion, it is evident that visual aids that a particular political party uses may build it or destroy it. A Malawi case has it image to the public.

By: Stewart A. Mafeni

Published by Korir, API*APN tel +47 932 9 739 or +47 6300 2525


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