Joyce Banda, who rose to prominence in Malawi as a relentless advocate for women’s rights, now appears set to become only the second female African head of state in modern times.
She become Malawi’s first woman vice president in 2009 as the running mate of President Bingu wa Mutharika, who has died after a heart attack, sparking political suspense about who will succeed him.
Just one year after their election victory the two fell out in a spectacular succession battle.
Mutharika decided to groom his brother Peter, currently the foreign minister, to become his Democratic Progressive Party’s candidate for the next polls in 2014.
He expelled Banda from the party, but she refused to give up her job. Instead, she formed her own People’s Party and became one of Mutharika’s fiercest critics, lambasting his management of an economy beset by crippling fuel shortages.
Banda was born on April 12, 1950, in Malawi’s colonial capital of Zomba where her father was an accomplished and popular police brass band musician.
She began her career as a secretary, but she became a well-known figure during the dictatorial era of Kamuzu Banda, no relation to her own family.
She started a women’s empowerment programme, travelling throughout the country to sell the National Business Women Association, a campaign that made her one of Malawi’s most visible champions of gender equality.
She later established the Joyce Banda Foundation to empower women through girls education.
She entered politics in 1999, during Malawi’s second democratic elections. She won a parliamentary seat in the former ruling party of retired president Bakili Muluzi.
He named her minister for gender and community services. Five years later, she retained her seat as a candidate for Muluzi’s party, even as Mutharika won the presidency.
The new president crossed party lines to appoint her as foreign minister in 2006. During her time as Malawi’s top diplomat, the country severed its long ties with Taiwan and established relations with Beijing.
She argued the switch would bring economic benefits to Malawi. China has since built Malawi a new parliament.
Mutharika tapped her as his running mate in the 2009 elections, but their honeymoon was short as party in-fighting intensified over his decision to anoint his brother as his successor, drawing accusations that he was trying to create a dynasty.
“The chronic disease of third term, or chieftaincy, remains one of the greatest enemies of our efforts to achieve sustainable development,” she said.
“The country is constantly caught in a vicious circle of privatisation of the state where one or two people hold the fate of the country.”
Banda’s expulsion from the ruling party angered many urban voters, and she remains a popular figure for many Malawians, known for her vigorous campaigning.
But her critics question her ability to steer the country through its economic crisis, with the currency trading on the black market at twice the official exchange rate.
After anti-government protests broke out in July last year, when police shot 19 people dead, Banda warned that Malawi could face more unrest ahead of the next polls.
“The road to 2014 will be rough, bumpy and tough. Some will even sacrifice their own lives,” she said.
Banda remains a role model to many women in Malawi for her gender fight in a male-dominated society.
Under the constitution the vice president is next in line and if Banda is sworn in as president, she will become Africa’s second female leader of modern times, after Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Her family is now among the most influential in Malawi. She is married to retired chief justice Richard Banda.
Her sister Anjimile Oponyo was hired by Madonna to run her school for girls, although that project collapsed and she was sacked by the mega-star.