Rising sun raises Malawi’s flagging spirits

By Simon Allison 31 May 2012

When Malawi’s late president changed the country’s flag two years ago, he used its symbolism to push his own agenda. But he’s gone now, and so is his flag, as Malawi’s parliament opted to revert to the old rising sun, symbol of the country’s brightened prospects. By SIMON ALLISON.

This is a tale of two flags. The first is a typical tricolore of black, red and green horizontal stripes, with a Malawian twist; a red rising sun in the black stripe, a promise of hope and a better future, in place since independence. The second is only slightly different: the red stripe moves above the black, and the sun shines much brighter, full and white.

It’s the second flag that caused all the problems. Nearly two years ago, as Malawi’s then-president Bingu wa Mutharika began to consolidate his power, he decided to replace Malawi’s independence flag with something new and hit upon the idea that by now Malawi’s sun should have risen. And he made it so, pushing the change through a supine parliament with little by way of public consultation. It was during this period that Mutharika’s autocratic tendencies became pronounced and there was nothing the population could do about it.

Mutharika justified the change with grandiose words about Malawi’s progress as a nation. He described the old flag as an inheritance from the British colonisers, who used the rising sun to illustrate their claim to have brought light into darkness. But, he said, “Things have changed and we are in a new era… we don’t have to live permanently in the past.” He claimed Malawi was a developed country and needed to symbolise this appropriately – hence the full risen sun.

Fast-forward 22 months, and Mutharika is dead – a victim, some suggest, of his own disastrous economic policies which meant potential life-saving medicine and equipment was unavailable when he needed it. His estranged vice-president Joyce Banda is now President Banda, and she is making sweeping changes. She immediately fired some of the worst ministers and civil servants, she devalued the kwacha to encourage investment, and she began to repair the broken relationships with donors. But her most symbolic gesture came on Monday when parliament agreed to revert to the old flag.

Mutharika’s party, now in opposition after losing nearly half its fickle MPs to Banda’s People’s Party, argued it was economically short-sighted to change flags again, given the costs associated with the change both to the state and to individuals. This is a somewhat disingenuous position, given that this party claimed just two years ago that Malawi was a “developed country”, and it found little support in parliament. Apparently, Malawi’s parliamentarians will give their allegiance to whoever’s flag is flying highest at any given time. This is a cause for concern. As Billy Banda from civil rights group Malawi Watch wryly observed, “One starts doubting their credibility”.

Flags are perhaps the most potent symbol of national identity, and are often changed to reflect new political dispensations. The southern African region has a fascinating history in this regard. South Africa is the most obvious example, replacing the old apartheid flag with something a little more colourful and representative of the “multi-coloured” it had become. Also close to home, Lesotho is on its third flag because each previous flag was introduced by a discredited government. The new one features a peaked Basotho hat, meaning it can be flown above both government buildings and tourist gift shops.

Mozambique’s flag has raised a thousand eyebrows in the world, being the only one with an automatic rifle – the infamous AK-47 – gun on it. Swaziland’s flag also features weapons, but of a much different sort – the spears and shield are no match for Mozambique’s machine gun.

For Malawi, the reversion to the old flag is a symbol that the country getting itself back on track, seeking to restore the steady progress and democratic consolidation Mutharika had jeopardised. Now the symbol is back in place, it is up to Banda and her government to give it value. DM

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Photo: Malawian new/old flag.



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