Ramaphosa has his work cut out to follow Malawi’s lead in rooting out graft

After claiming victory in a court-ordered election rerun, Lazarus Chakwera is now luring SA farmers

Opposition Malawi Congress Party leader Lazarus Chakwera addresses supporters after a court annulled the May 2019 presidential vote that declared Peter Mutharika a winner, in Lilongwe, Malawi, on February 4, 2020.
Opposition Malawi Congress Party leader Lazarus Chakwera addresses supporters after a court annulled the May 2019 presidential vote that declared Peter Mutharika a winner, in Lilongwe, Malawi, on February 4, 2020.

Amid Covid-19, Lazarus rose. From the ashes of a fraudulent election in Malawi, Pentecostal preacher Lazarus Chakwera claimed victory in a court-ordered rerun in June. This was the second time an African election has been voided — Kenya’s was overturned by its courts in 2017 — and the first time a challenger has then gone on, after such a ruling, to dethrone an incumbent. That, paired with the new president’s character, offers hope of a fresh beginning for many across the African continent — including for SA’s struggling farmers.

Malawi’s fundamentals for agriculture are strong: nutrient-rich land combined with a lush climate. Yet what is lacking is the expertise to maximise economic and job creation: while more than 80% of Malawians are employed in farming, most of them are subsistence farmers. The country needs not only agribusiness investment but the know-how to add value to the chain of production and multiply yields. Now they have a president leading the charge: “South Africans are welcome to Malawi to invest in our soil,” Chakwera recently said.

This call could not come at a more opportune time: mooted land appropriation and concerns over the rule of law and political discourse in SA are well known. In sharp contrast, the Malawi election result has revealed the strength of the country’s independent judicial system. When a deluge of ballots was found to have been altered — Tipp-Exed to “correct” the votes — the Constitutional Court annulled the result. The judges did this despite being offered bribes by the governing party, a rare win for rule of law in Southern Africa.

When challenged at the supreme court by then president Peter Mutharika, the chief justice upheld the initial ruling. When Mutharika then tried force him and colleagues out of the position before the rerun — over which they would be the ultimate arbiters — the entire legal community united around them. The straightness and solidarity of the judiciary would ultimately cause the people’s democratic will translated. Importantly for farmers, this all bodes well for the respect of property deeds and contracts.

Contracts suspended

The judiciary was not the only institution revealed to be “Tipp-Ex resistant”. The groundswell of pressure to investigate the election demonstrated the vibrancy of civil society and the free press. Months of resolute yet peaceful protests followed the first election, with the press playing its part to keep them out on the streets. With strong institutions such as these, all that is needed to fight corruption is the will of the executive. But Mutharika was the stumbling block.

His replacement has set a different tone. Chakwera’s desire to “clear the rubble” — as he puts it — has, in a few short months, already led to many investigations into past deals the former government made. Dubious contracts have been suspended. In this, his party, administration and state institutions stand firmly behind him.

The comparison with SA is clear. While it is difficult to doubt his intentions, President Cyril Ramaphosa is obstructed in his fight to root out corruption. Unlike in Malawi, where Chakwera’s predecessor was exorcised, first by the courts and then the voters, there is more standing in the way of Ramaphosa removing the corrupt officials of his predecessor across governing institutions. For now, some of them are actively working against his reform agenda, protecting those who damaged the state.

Until Ramaphosa makes decisive headway in his war on corruption, international investors are likely to continue pausing. Others will continue to seek opportunity across Southern Africa — and less so in the country that carries the region’s name. And for SA’s world-class farming community, the opportunities for expansion and investment will continue to lie elsewhere —particularly in places with a fairer business environment and significant action on governance. Chakwera is showing the way. On this he now asks SA farmers to join him.

• Hinks chairs Invest Africa US and is CEO and founder of Symbion Power.

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