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Cultural Talk: Battles between cultures and constitutions

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Malawi is grappling with what often seems like a substantial divide between that which is claimed as African culture and the constitution of a liberal democracy – that the country adopted at the dawn of multiparty some decades ago.

It’s clear this is a discussion whose time has come. In an earlier edition of Cultural Talk titled Mwamuna Saachepa (a man is never too young), I talked about some of the beliefs that Malawians have. I am beginning to think that it is not always that the constitution of a country is in line with or agrees with the cultures of the country, its people and beliefs. Why do I say this? Curiously, this saying that a man is never too young does not seem to apply in certain sects.

There was recently a story about a very young man, about 17 or 18 years of age who had to take his late fathers’ place on the throne as Inkosi ya Makosi.

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The kingdom before he could take it over was being run by some other members of the royal family as the young man was about 14 years old when his father passed on and the boy was considered way too young to take up the crown. This is understandable as well he was being given a chance to finish high school.

It is believed (and I believe this is not limited to Malawi) that the older a person is, the wiser they are. So what I find most curious is the fact that as much as the constitution of Malawi states that a presidential candidate should be above the age of 35 years not many Malawians believe that someone that young is fit to take up such a daunting task as to run an entire country. Yet, it’s the same people who say, “Mwamuna saachepa.”

I am beginning to think that the saying perhaps is just a saying and means something different from what I first thought. Perhaps it is not a belief per se.

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It’s exciting to learn that the constitution nowhere states that the presidential candidate should be male or female.

And I quote: “Notwithstanding any provision of this Constitution to the contrary, a person shall only be qualified for nomination for election as President or First Vice-President or for appointment as First Vice- President or Second Vice- President if that person-a. is a citizen of Malawi by birth or descent; and b. has attained the age of thirty-five years.

No person shall be eligible for nomination as a candidate for election as President or First Vice-President or for appointment as first Vice- President or Second Vice- President if that person; a. has been adjudged or declared to be of unsound mind b. is an undischarged bankrupt having been declared bankrupt under a law of the Republic c. has, within the last seven years , been convicted by a competent court of a crime involving dishonesty and moral turpitude d. owes allegiance to a foreign country e. is the holder of a public office or a member of Parliament , unless that person first resigns f. is serving Member of the Defense Forces or Malawi Police Force; or g. has within the last seven years, been convicted by a competent court of any violation of any law relating to election of the President or election of the members of Parliament.” Unquote.

It states nowhere that a leader must be of a certain sex and this was very exciting to me. But the gender issues of our patriarchal society are not my interest today.

I was just thinking about the age issue and wondering why if Malawians truly believe that “mwamuna saachepa” why is it that they would opt to put in power someone who is perhaps 60 years old and over.

Yes, it is true that the older people are wiser, but when the constitution was being written, I am sure those that decided that the age for an eligible candidate should start from thirty five had a good reason to trust that someone that age is fit to run a country.

Another issue that I scoff at is the notion that democracy was a borrowed concept. This was a point also, once made by former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano. “Participation in civic life is something that has always been part of African tradition,” he said, “even if it once took place under a tree rather than in a parliamentary building.”

Talking about this notion of imported, “un-African” norms, I find it odd that people sometimes are so vocal about rejecting minority rights and women’s rights on the grounds that they are “not African”.

Why are you proud of articulating an Africanness which is so violently intolerant; and yet the constitution, birthed by our forefathers, smiles at them?

I guess it’s an intriguing idea. If there’s something to it, we’re likely to see many more continent-wide battles between cultures and constitutions.

However, when the government for example, is pressed in a corner and caught in between the firing lines of the raging battles, it has no choice but to defend constitutionalism.

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