Thursday, 7 June 2012

Joyce Banda at Claridge's

I was invited by the Royal African Society to attend a breakfast meeting this morning with the new president of Malawi, Joyce Banda, at the posh London hotel, Claridge's.

I arrived a bit early which was lucky because I got distracted by the pretty tiles and odd flushing mechanism in the ladies' loos.

I also liked the 'rocking zebra' in the hall.

The main theme of the meeting was business so there were lots of busy and important businesspeople there. We sat around a big table and waited. And waited. And waited.

Although lots of presidents make people wait, I had expected Joyce Banda to be different. Since coming to power following the death in office on 5 April 2012 of President Bingu wa Mutharika, Mrs Banda has been a no-nonsense head of state. She has devalued the currency by more than thirty per cent, sacked the police chief, asked parliament to repeal the law banning homosexuality and put the presidential jet up for sale. I thought to myself this is a lady who seems to lack the usual presidential airs and graces, who should be here bang on time.

The important people around the table started to get agitated. Some of them left.

Eventually Mrs Banda arrived, looking quite splendid in matching brown and apricot colours.

She started off by doing something quite unpresidential. She apologised for being late. And instead of inventing some grand sounding excuse, she said that she had simply been having breakfast as she was under the impression her first meeting of the day started at 1030, not 0900. There had, she said, been a communication gap. 

Then she got down to business. She said she thanked God Malawians were standing by her because the decisions she had made during her first six weeks in power were so bold and radical that they could have ruined her political career. She said Malawians up and down the country had sung her praises when she went on tour, but warned "those songs could very well turn to stones in six months time".

She told us she had decided to sell the presidential jet: "In any case it was second hand," she joked, "and we have no need for such a thing".

Mrs Banda with the Director of the Royal African Society, Richard Dowden.

We were told she wants Malawi to be known as a mining nation, and that a mining faculty will be opened at one of the country's universities. Her special advisor on policy and strategy, Shyley Kondowe, listed some of Malawi's mineral resources. I was sitting next to him so got a good peek of the entire list. It went something like this: bauxite, uranium, rare earth minerals (11 million tonnes), corundum (the internet says it's a crystalline form of aluminium oxide), graphite, limestone, titanium, coal (5 billion tonnes), phosphate, gemstones, oil and gas (not really minerals), gold, plus a few more.

The Malawian army officer needed a rest after standing up for so long waiting for Mrs Banda.

Mrs Banda ended by apologising again for being late and saying that, as the first African woman president in the Southern African Development Community (and the second woman president in Africa), she would fail all African women if she failed. She said she was nothing special, saying "there are lots of Joyce Banda's where I come from". I'm not so sure.

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