A Democracy of Chameleons: Politics and Culture in the New Malawi

A Democracy of Chameleons: Politics and Culture in the New Malawi

A Democracy of Chameleons: Politics and Culture in the New Malawi

A Democracy of Chameleons: Politics and Culture in the New Malawi


After thirty years of autocratic rule under "Life President" Kamuzu Banda, Malawians experienced a transition to multi-party democracy in 1994. A new constitution and several democratic institutions promised a new dawn in a country ravaged by poverty and injustice. This book presents original research on the economic, social, political and cultural consequences of the new era. A new generation of scholars, most of them from Malawi, cover virtually every issue causing debate in the New Malawi: poverty and hunger, the plight of civil servants, the role of the judiciary, political intolerance and hate speech, popular music as a form of protest, clergy activism, voluntary associations and ethnic revival, responses to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and controversies over women's rights. Both chameleon-like leaders and the donors of Malawi's foreign aid come under critical scrutiny for supporting superficial democratization. The book ends with a rare public statement on the New Malawi by Jack Mapanje, Malawi's internationally acclaimed writer.


From the pluralism of periodic electoral contests to respect for human rights, “democracy” is a multifaceted concept that has come to mean different things in Africa. Despite a number of authoritarian African countries undergoing a transition from one-party rule to multipartyism, it has become clear that “the current struggles and transitions to democracy have been dazzling and messy, their results contradictory and unpredictable, yielding both successes and defeats, concessions to the future and compromises with the past, heroism and tragedy, hope and pessimism” (Zeleza, 1997: 11). The euphoria that greeted the transition period is being qualified by the new leaders' desire to go against the fundamentals of democracy they fought for by clinging to power using various strategies, some of which may lead to changing the new democratic constitutions.

This chapter examines the phenomenon of hate speech in Malawi's “new political dispensation” as a basis for discussing the conflicting realities between the rhetoric of democracy and actual practices; and how far Malawi has consolidated its democracy. The period under review extends from the referendum in 1993 to the aftermath of the second democratic elections in 1999, analysing samples of hate speeches of various political players (the state president, regional and district governors) during this period, focusing mainly on the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) during the 1999 election campaign. The chapter is divided into three sections. Section One reviews literature on the ongoing debate on hate speech and how to curtail it, language use and the culture of violence. Section Two provides a contextual background to Malawi's culture of intolerance, and Section Three presents data on hate speech and the linguistic strategies used. We argue that language changes manifest social changes, and that even under the so-called new political dispensation the violence emanating from hate speech has not abated in Malawi. Our main argument is that the new democratic constitution does not make sufficient provisions against hate speech and the violence and intolerance that it fosters.

Defining Hate Speech

We conceptualise “hate speech” within the definitions given by Neisser (1994) and Brekle (1989). Hate speech encompassses “all communications (whether verbal, written, symbolic) that insult a racial, ethnic and political group, whether by suggesting that they are inferior in some respect or by indicating that they are despised or not welcome for any other reasons” (Neisser, 1994:337). This definition includes not only a virulent personal epithet hurled at a particular individual in a threatening manner, but also a political speech or tract addressed to the general public advocating new policies or a particular electoral result. In relation to this, “political vio-

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.