If women activists are excited, it is because this represents progress in Southern Africa as we ebb closer to 2015, in which 50% of women should be in decision-making positions according to the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development.
But, who is Joyce Banda and what are the political trials that await her as she assumes power? Her ascendance to this position is in itself representative of a larger struggle in Malawi between those supporting a good governance and human rights agenda (largely civil society) and those who have been aligned to the increasingly autocratic modus operandi of the late Mutharika.
Banda, among her many other identities, is a gender activist, educationist and politician. She founded, among others, the Joyce Banda Foundation for Better Education, the Young Women Leaders Network, the National Association of Business Women and the Hunger Project in Malawi and has received much acclaim and recognition for these achievements. She has been an outspoken advocate for women's leadership and women's empowerment and was voted 'Woman of the Year' in Malawi in 1997 and 1998. But it was her rise in the Malawian political landscape that would place her as one of top women leaders in Africa.
Banda occupied the positions of Minister of Gender, Child Welfare and Community Services and Minister of Foreign Affairs between 2004 and 2009. In May 2009 she was elected Vice President, a position that then ignited gender-based power struggles within the party. The succession struggle within the ruling Democratic People's Party (DPP) saw high-ranking officials asserting that 'Malawi is not ready for a woman president' and Mutharika himself proclaiming his brother, Peter Mutharika, as his successor. These events also represented the beginning of a rapid decline in Malawi with many fearing that it would tread the same path as its previously recalcitrant neighbour, Zimbabwe.
In December 2010 Banda was fired from the DPP. The fact that she was elected made it constitutionally difficult for Mutharika to strip her of the position of Vice President - though he certainly succeeded in politically marginalizing her. In 2011, she formed her own party, The Peoples Party. Banda retained the same support that propelled her into power, namely civil society (especially women's groups), as she stood fast in her critique of what was perceived as the growing dictatorial tendencies of Mutharika and a fast-declining economy.
Mutharika had been re-elected president in 2009 with a sweeping 66% of the vote. This flowed from a generally successful first term during which he was seen as a reformer and in which he had managed to increase Malawi's agricultural output significantly through an input subsidy scheme. However, analysts argue that having earlier freed himself from the shadow of his patron, former president Bakili Muluzi, Mutharika became intoxicated by the acclaim brought by the success of his agricultural policy. The self-proclaimed all-knowing 'economist-in-chief' soon began to show autocratic and eccentric streaks. Since 2010, Mutharika faced growing criticism locally and internationally for authoritarianism, trampling on democratic freedoms, human rights abuses and presiding over the collapse of Malawi's economy.
In an unprecedented move Mutharika expelled Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, the British High Commissioner in Lilongwe, after the diplomat noted in a leaked cable to London that Mutharika was becoming 'ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism'. Britain, Malawi's largest bilateral aid donor, responded with a tit-for-tat ejection of Malawi's High Commissioner from London and withdrawing aid.
Meanwhile, Malawi suffered a burgeoning economic crisis fuelled by among others the severance of donor support and a decline in key exports - especially agricultural goods such as tobacco, which accounted for up to 80% of foreign exchange earnings. Malawi's inflation rose rapidly to double figures, pushing higher the cost of living in a country where over 70% of the population of 15.4 million people live on less than $1 a day. A general shortage of foreign exchange affected the government's ability to pay for the import of food, fuel and medicines, resulting in major shortages.
The deteriorating political and economic conditions sparked anti-government demonstrations in Blantyre and Lilongwe last July. 19 people were killed in a ruthless police crackdown to quell the protests, prompting SADC to place Malawi on the summit agenda. Led by Britain, international donors cancelled their aid, citing concerns about the infringement of democratic freedoms, economic mismanagement and bad governance. This caused the economic crisis to worsen since external resources had been funding around 40% of the country's national budget.
Until his death Mutharika, a former World Bank economist, publicly disagreed with the West and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over economic policy, particularly over the devaluation of Malawi's currency.
He argued that devaluing the Kwacha would hurt the poor. This prolonged the Lilongwe-donor standoff, further hurting the economy. In February 2012, the finance ministry predicted a $121m budget shortfall in the current fiscal year despite austerity measures.
At the time of his death Mutharika was facing mounting pressure from civil society to step down. This included a March 2012 call by the influential Public Affairs Committee (PAC), a religious rights group, for the resignation of the president or for a referendum for the president to seek a fresh mandate from Malawians within 90 days or face 'civil disobedience'.
When Banda took the presidential oath on 7 April, she faced significant challenges that could shake her reign. First, Banda must win over enough MPs so that the DPP-dominated parliament will not block her efforts to govern.
Second, Banda has to win back donor confidence and support for Malawi's suffocating economy. It remains to be seen whether Banda can be careful in her efforts to swiftly reconcile with the West, yet not risk isolation by her Southern African peers in a region in which liberation movement-turned ruling political party camaraderie, anti-imperialist solidarity and an old-boys network still hold sway.
Third, Banda has to balance implementing democratic reforms and some austerity measures to restore the country's economy while retaining parliament's vote of confidence and public support.
Fourth, Banda will soon have to decide whether to allow Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir to enter the country in July to attend the African Union Summit taking place in Lilongwe. This after the International Criminal Court referred the country to the United Nations Security Council for refusing to arrest the indicted Sudanese leader during his visit to Malawi in October last year.
Having the second woman as president is a major step forward for Africa. Having the first woman as president is an even bigger step for Southern Africa. But, the challenges are daunting and she will need all the support she can get. We wish her well!
Gwinyai A. Dzinesa is senior researcher in conflict prevention and risk analysis and Cheryl Hendricks is senior research fellow in Conflict Management and peacebuildin.