The role played by the wives of heads of state in Africa has been largely ignored, writes Jo-Ansie van Wyk in This is Africa.
Wyk is the professor in International Politics at University of South Africa. She has studied the roles of first ladies on the continent and in her piece she raises varied questions about the ‘office of the first lady’.
“First ladies, act as power brokers and members of an inner circle,” she argues. “They actively mobilise support for their spouses. They use strategies such as their personal narratives, their country’s liberation history, religion and culture…however, despite their own political experience, ambitions and influence we found that the women remain subordinate to the patriarchy in their societies.”
The role of the first lady is, therefore, reduced to that of a spouse to the president, mother, caregiver and nurturer of the sick, young and elderly. The first lady has to deal with issues to do with women. That’s why, it has become so traditional, that offices of the first lady are directed from within the president’s office.
We on the streets believe the first ladies can do more. We initiated this conversation on June 9, 2017. At the time, we wrote a piece in praise of the First Lady Gertrude Mutharika for changing the traditional role of her office with her charity Beautify Malawi. The charity champions cleaner and greener cities in the country.
For the past four years, Beautify Malawi has proved that by changing people’s mindset, any environmental fight can be won. Today, our cities Lilongwe and Blantyre are cleaner and greener, partly because of the First Lady’s efforts.
We knew the piece would anger many people, but we praised Mutharika for not being like other first ladies, who had messed up the First Lady’s office. Gertrude at the time, was a breath of fresh air—so we thought. But when the article was published last week of alleged abuse of the First Lady’s ‘office’, we were incensed.
Why is the First Lady’s office undermined? Is it the abuse of that office much a result of the office not being an official government office and the holders of that office accountable to no-one but their husbands?
Yes, the Constitution might be silent about it, so is the budget, however, year-in-year out, we on the streets, fund it through State House. This arrangement is what we believe undermines democratic integrity of that office.
The voices on the streets that the First Lady must be accountable are justified. Reports that the First Lady has travelled at State’s expense with members in her employ to her son’s graduation in the United Kingdom is something that can anger citizens of any poor country.
If true, that she has blown over K50 million on a private trip, then we on the streets, join the many choruses demanding that she pays back the money.
But isn’t it time the presidents’ wives—who hold a lot of sway within the political power structure—have a legal office so that they are jailed if they abuse public funds?