Nationwide Strike Delivers Blow to Malawi's President

Malawi's president is beating back calls for her to resign after hundreds of thousands of civil servants demanding a wage increase went on a two-week long strike, shuttering the country's international airport and paralyzing hospitals and schools.

Public sector workers had asked for a 65 percent wage increase to combat a rising cost of living sparked by President Joyce Banda‘s tough economic reforms, including a devaluation of the local kwacha currency. During the nationwide strike, schools were closed and health centers were left with bare-bones staff as doctors, nurses, teachers, and other civil servants walked off the job.

The country's finance minister had said earlier that the striking workers’ demand, which would nearly triple the government's wage bill from 97 billion kwacha [about 275 million US dollars] to 276 billion kwacha [about 785 million US dollars], was impossible. But officials bowed to workers’ demands and agreed on a 61 percent wage increase on February 21, 2013.

The ordeal has not helped Banda, who is up for re-election next year. The country's first female president, who inherited a crumbling economy from her late predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika, has increasingly drawn ire at home for implementing austerity budgets and other painful economic reforms in part to please the international community, whose aid accounts for about 40 percent of Malawi's budget.

A further blow to Banda's government were the remarks of Malawi's Minister of Economic Planning and Development Goodall Gondwe, published on the eve of the strike, accusing his fellow countrymen of being lazy.

Joyce Banda  speaking at the DFID conference in 2010. Photo shared on Flickr by DFID under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) .

Joyce Banda speaking at the DFID conference in 2010. Photo shared on Flickr by DFID under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) .

Blogger Alick Ponje wrote that Banda has broken the public's trust:

The truth is we are being led by a president that isn't giving us enough opportunity to express ourselves. She must guess what we want and act on the guess even if she hasn't divined it. That’s pretty dangerous. We are being tried by our own president and our voices are subdued in the immense power that she all of a sudden wields.

At the beginning of her really glorious times, [Joyce Banda] hoodwinked us into believing she is a listening president who would always be at our beck and call. She had to in order to have a nice start, with all the deserved support.

But blogger Pearson Nkhoma argued that demanding Banda's resignation or impeachment wouldn't solve the problem because parliament would remain populated with members who supported former President Mutharika, who brought Malawi into its current economic mess:

We want to paint a picture that [Joyce Banda] has miserably failed. Indeed, she may have failed, but we are the people who clapped hands at the ‘achievements’ of Bingu wa Mutharika when others were wailing night and day, saying that Bingu, the autocrat was failing Malawi; that Bingu was taking the country into oblivion where it could be impossible to save. Now [Banda] is having problems in taking the country from the hades of destructions. We, who are calling for the head of [Banda], are to a larger extent to blame for this mess.

Pointing to the clear divide between the ruling class and everyone else, blogger Alick Nyasulu wrote in a post that appeared in The Nation newspaper that the government is not fulfilling the social contract that it holds with the Malawian people:

The spirit of entrepreneurism is vivid and well sunk in the average person that is not abusing the privilege of being in control of tax payers money. I don’t think anyone should preach success simply because they have had a privileged position of allocating themselves undue wealth at the expense of public trust. Unless we stop, doubtful in contemporary circumstances, elected public figures and their surrogates from stealing public funds, all talk about raising living standards is nothing but old colonial school colonial talk under the skin of the guy next door. We are not lazy but deserve more.

Blogger Watipaso Mkandawire, writing that every class in Malawian society from top to bottom fails to do what is expected of them, called on civil servants to increase their productivity now that they have won a wage increase. Maybe this will encourage Banda's administration to honour its promises to the people when it comes to the country's plan for economic recovery, but probably not, he wrote:

Of course the reality is that this is plain psychological. Malawi's economy is in bad shape and there is “organised chaos” among those that are trying to implement the Economic Recovery Plan. They have a contract with Malawians, but they don't intend to honour that contract because simply it is not in their nature and they don't care.

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