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Zimbabwe's Draft Charter Proposes 16 Official Languages, up From Three

Zimbabwe's draft constitution, completed this week by the parliamentary select committee responsible for crafting the country's new charter, will see the Southern African nation adopting 16 official languages, up from just three.

The final draft states that Chewa, Chibarwe, English, Kalanga, Koisan, Nambya, Ndau, Ndebele, Shangani, Shona, sign language, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda and Xhosa will be treated equally.

Law lecturer at Kent University in the United Kingdom, Alex Magaisa, was one of the expert advisers to the select committee.

He says the official languages issue created heated debates during discussions with many arguing the need to recognize different cultures in the country.

But the legal expert said a practical approach still needs to be taken on the issue. It's one thing, he says, to have an official language but another to have a language of record.

“A language of record means if you go to a court of law it is the language which the records are kept. If you are going to have multiple languages then you might have a very serious problem," said Magaisa.

“Let’s assume you go to Chipinge and Ndau is used there as a language of record, and someone else does not speak Ndau and only speaks Tonga, and someone else might want to get a record in English – it means you have to prepare the record in three languages and that is going to be a practical nightmare.”

He said the list appears to be exclusive and that it would have been easier to simply say all indigenous languages in Zimbabwe are official languages in addition to English to keep the list open.

In a wide-ranging interview analyzing critical issues in the proposed charter, Magaisa told the VOA’s Violet Gonda that other notable aspects include an emphasis on the issue of gender equality and specific rights given to women.

“Women will have the same rights of guardianship as men. There are also issues of protection of women in marriage insofar as property is concerned and in regards to inheritance where there has been discrimination against women and widows,” revealed Magaisa.

There are also ‘some’ positive steps being made to recognize that women should get more space in politics, through proportional representation.

“The draft goes to great lengths to safeguard the rights to personal liberty and also the rights of persons who have been arrested.

“So I think it is going to be very difficult to sustain the abuse or misuse of the Section 122 of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act which has been used routinely against political activists.”

However, he said the gay rights lobby will be disappointed as the new charter does not recognize gay rights.

The proposed charter separates the Attorney General’s office into different entities. It will now be restricted to legal advisory roles to the government with a National Prosecuting Authority being created to exclusively prosecute all criminal matters.

The document also restores the right to vote for so-called aliens or Zimbabweans with one foreign parent, who for long have been disenfranchised and denied passports.

Other positive developments include the acceptance of devolution as a structure of government and the acceptance of dual citizenship for citizens by birth. However, there is provision for parliament to regulate dual citizenship for citizens by descent or by registration.

Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Eric Matinenga said the draft will be handed over to unity government principals anytime now.

The document, to replace the Lancaster House constitution that has been amended 19 times, will also be presented before an All-Stakeholders Conference in the next few weeks before going for a national referendum.

Magaisa said there are some clauses that were in the first draft that appear to have disappeared.

These include allowing the Diaspora vote in the presidential race, and the parliamentary public appointments committee, which was supposed to recommend or vet appointments made by the president.

The expert said there is still room for improvement, especially on the issue of presidential powers, to ensure the checks people demanded in the outreach exercise are put in place.

The new charter does not have a cap on the number of cabinet ministers and deputies, despite criticisms that the current establishment is too big for a bankrupt government.

It has abolished the death sentence for women and those under the age of 21 and above 70 years, but pro-life activists say it does not go far enough.

Among other notable aspects, the new charter adopts the American and Malawi system where a presidential candidate has a running mate who automatically takes over if the head of state is incapacitated or unable to continue in office. Critics say there is no need for Zimbabwe to have two running mates. They say it's a waste of resources.

“For all those people who were arguing so hard about who is going to succeed who, in the different political parties, the signal will be shown by who is selected as a running mate in the elections. So that is important for Zimbabwe," Magaisa appointed out.

He says the draft will be criticized by many but adds what is important is that Zimbabweans finally have a starting point to discuss and shape their destiny.

Please see attached audio file for full in-depth interview with Alex Magaisa on Zimbabwe's final draft constitution.