Written with Lindiwe Makhunga*
The defeat of incumbent Joyce Banda in Malawi’s recent and controversial presidential elections, raises some uncomfortable but necessary questions about what constitutes collective expectations of women’s formal leadership in sub-Saharan Africa. On Saturday, Peter Mutharika of Malawi’s Democratic Progressive Party emerged as the winner with 36.4% of the vote, Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party received 27.8% of the vote, while Banda’s People’s Party scraped through to third place with a mere 20.2% of the vote. Banda’s unseating invites a sobering re-examination of the unsavoury democratic politics that have surrounded her presidential tenure since 2012.
Widely hailed across the continent and internationally as an international donor darling and the answer to Malawi’s democratic and economic woes, Banda’s inauguration to the presidency after the death of Bingu wa Mutharika was greeted as a decisive shift in the country’s dysfunctional politics. Despite lacking a definitive support base and constituency in Malawi when appointed, Elliot Gerson, writing for the Huffington Post, asserted that “Joyce Banda, president of Malawi since April, is already a beacon of hope for that desperately poor country, but also for good governance across a continent long plagued by its opposite”. His analysis captured the world’s collective opinion of Banda and the prospects she offered Malawi, the continent and its women as only the second woman in Africa to ever hold this position after Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. As Garvey Karvei wrote in Malawi’s Nyasa Times, “Joyce Banda seemed to have all the markings of a heroine in the making … the legendary Mother Teresa, incarnate”. Banda’s emergence as president was further burdened by the expectations that she would be the transformative woman leader that Johnson-Sirleaf was failing to become.
Banda’s political trajectory over the past two years, therefore, has been a distinct disappointment for the overwhelming majority who believed she would usher in a new brand of politics based on her gender. They were shocked when she was implicated in the same corruption and patronage politics associated with her predecessor. In February 2014 she was implicated in a $100 million government embezzlement scandal termed “Cashgate“, which resulted in the suspension of international donor aid from Malawi. On conceding defeat to Mutharika, she faces the possibility of incarceration due to corruption charges.
Everywhere on the continent women accessing the political arena in large numbers or in high positions supposedly usher in a new brand of “progressive politics” based on their gender and are hailed, particularly by the West, as transformative. They are frequently cited as an example of a particular essentialist conception of women’s leadership, which is considered highly efficient and capable, impermeable to corruption, peaceful and innately maternal.
Predictably, the narrative of Banda’s fall has reduced her to a fallen “saint” bent on saving her own skin. The danger of the saint versus sinner narrative is that it reduces the serious challenge of governing within the predatory politics of patronage to a task that can be “fixed” by an individual leader who is able to rise above ingrained politics of thuggery. When that leader fails in their role as “the fixer”, the international community is first to position itself as having fallen victim to the seduction of yet another typically corrupt African leader. The disappointment is exaggerated when the “fallen” leader is a woman.
In January 2014 the recently appointed Central African Republic interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, was widely expected to end a protracted civil war with the sheer force of her femininity. It is a conception of women’s leadership that is frequently invoked by women and feminist advocates to justify women’s representation in formal government. The Liberian feminist peacemaker and Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee has been quoted arguing that women leaders are more thoughtful in terms of policy compared to male leaders who care “more about socialising and patriarchy”.
These are some of the problematic assumptions and deeply embedded biases in the public imagination of what women’s leadership is supposed to constitute, one that propagates simplistic dichotomies about gendered difference and also implicitly perpetuates the notion that women are not suited to political life, hard politics or war politics.
When Johnson-Sirleaf became the only African president prepared to host American military bases, Africom, the outrage was further heightened by the belief that as a woman-leader, she had done the unthinkable. Even when women leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi have gone against this narrative, the pervasive paradigm is still that women promote peaceful politics and renounce militarism. The fall-out in October 2012 between Johnson-Sirleaf and Gbowee, over Gbowee’s accusations that Johnson-Sirleaf’s government was not taking adequate measures to address endemic state corruption, was all the more surprising as it seemed to fly against Gbowee’s own special expectations of women leaders.
The grim reality is that women are active participants in ruling party/state conflated patronage politics and historically, women’s senior leadership within ruling parties, particularly in post-colonial African contexts, have facilitated this type of politics and acted as institutions of patronage. South Africa has witnessed the ruling ANC Women’s League reduced to a shadow of its former self as the party’s elite women have stood firmly in support of President Jacob Zuma, scandal after scandal.
But in truth and to be fair, women politicians are subject to the same realities from the political arena as men. In fact, it could be argued that the realities of women leaders, especially in countries where they are largely absent from the political arena, are even more difficult as a definitive feminine collective agency does not exist and therefore cannot be harnessed to pursue specific agendas. The fact that Banda managed to survive not only an assassination attempt, but to remain in opposition politics for as long as she did as vice-president, indicates that she is a seasoned career politician, who is willing to take the requisite risks to guarantee her position. This in itself reflects her principal loyalties as a politician willing to play in a perceived “boys’ club”. Her ability to concede to a humiliating defeat following a ruling by Malawi’s high court, is a positive development for the country’s democratic and institutional maturity.
Bearing all of this in mind we should expect nothing more from our female leaders than we expect from our male leaders especially on a continent where politics has been dominated by normalised criminality. Even Malawi’s incoming president, Mutharika — a professor of law, will enter the state house under the shadow of several criminal charges of treason, mutiny and conspiracy that he will now escape due to the privileges of presidential immunity.
Banda’s presidency was not without its triumphs, which the high pedestal she has fallen off will prevent us from acknowledging. Within the first few months of her presidency she reduced her own salary by 30% and sold the presidential jet, which was widely perceived to have been an extravagant and wasteful purchase by the previous president. Banda’s political crime was one committed by many former and current African presidents who have not been equally vilified on the same terms, attaining power and employing illegitimate mechanisms to maintain it.
The point here is not excusing the missteps of leaders on the basis that they are women. But rather it is to point out that the added expectations on their leadership, which make their “fall” inevitable, are not realistically useful. Until the local and international community take seriously the difficulties of changing perverted political institutions by recognising the dangers of placing individual leaders on pedestals that stand on shaky foundations, we will fail to appreciate the collective commitment needed to redeem such institutions if we persist to point fingers at individual leaders, be they women or men.
*Lindiwe Makhunga is a PhD candidate in the political studies department at the University of the Witwatersrand.