Madonna vs President Joyce Banda

Madonna's attempt to save face after her scolding by Malawi's president to rehash the stereotype of the corrupt African leader rings hollow, and a bit desperate. Malawi's President wasn't having it.

Joyce Banda in 2013 (Chatham House, via Wiki Commons).

We had been studiously avoiding coverage of Madonna’s latest trip to Malawi, but such is the deliciousness of the excoriating 11-point press release put out yesterday by Joyce Banda that we couldn’t resist wading in. These two had previous — Madonna’s people had scapegoated Banda’s sister over a botched school project — and the latest visit was something of a surprise as the singer was widely supposed to have been declared persona non grata.

Last week Madonna sent Banda a weird overfamiliar hand-scrawled note which seemed to piss Banda off to the extent that she immediately leaked it. Finally, enraged by Madonna’s whining to the international press about having to check in on departure at the airport in Lilongwe, Africa’s second female president totally lost it and laid down the presidential smackdown with a furiously sarcastic tirade in which she lectured the would-be do-gooder on the meaning of kindness, accused her of blackmail and bullying, lamented her failure to perform “decent music,” and compared her unfavorably to Chuck Norris, Bono, and a trio of English soccer players. It’s funny, but it’s also a classic takedown of the astonishing entitlement of white savior types and their puffed-up pretensions. You can read her statement here in all its glory:

Claims and misgivings have been expressed by Pop Star, Madonna and her agents, against the Malawi Government and its leadership for not giving her the attention and courtesy that she thinks she merits and deserves during her recent trip to Malawi.

According to the claims, Madonna feels that the Malawi Government and its leadership should have abandoned everything and attended to her because she believes she is a music star turned benefactor who is doing Malawi good.

Besides, in the feeling of Madonna, the Malawi Government and its leadership should have rolled out a red carpet and blast the 21-gun salute in her honour because she believes that as a musician, the whiff of whose repute flies across international boundaries, she automatically is candidate for VVIP treatment.

For not receiving the attention and the graces that she believes she deserved, Madonna believes someone, not lesser in disposition than the President’s sister, Mrs. Anjimile Mtila-Oponyo, has been pulling the strings against her following their earlier fallout bordering on a labour dispute.

State House has noted these claims and misgivings. State House has followed the debate incidental to these claims with keen interest, and would wish to respond as follows to put the record straight:

1. Neither the President nor any official in her government denied Madonna any attention or courtesy during her recent visit to Malawi because as far as the administration is concerned there is no defined attention and courtesy that must be followed in respect of her.

2. In any case, even if the defined parameters of attention and courtesy existed in respect of Madonna, the liberties of discretion to give or not to give that attention or courtesy would ordinarily and naturally remain the preserve of the host. Attention or courtesy is never demanded.

3. Granted, Madonna has adopted two children from Malawi. According to the record, this gesture was humanitarian and of her accord. It, therefore, comes across as strange and depressing that for a humanitarian act, prompted only by her, Madonna wants Malawi to be forever chained to the obligation of gratitude. Kindness, as far as its ordinary meaning is concerned, is free and anonymous. If it can’t be free and silent, it is not kindness; it is something else. Blackmail is the closest it becomes.

4. Granted, Madonna is a famed international musician. But that does not impose an injunction of obligation on any government under whose territory Madonna finds herself, including Malawi, to give her state treatment. As stated earlier in this statement, such treatment, even if she deserved it, is discretionary not obligatory.

5. It should be put on record that Madonna did not come to Malawi at the invitation of the President nor her government. In other words, she was neither the guest of the President nor of her government.

6. For all that is known, she came to Malawi like any other visitor that feels like coming to Malawi. Such visitors don’t have to meet with the President and are never amenable to state attention or graces.

7. If the argument is that because she is an internationally renowned star, and, therefore, Madonna believes she deserved to be treated differently from other visiting foreigners, it is worth making her aware that Malawi has hosted many international stars, including Chuck Norris, Bono, David James, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville who have never demanded state attention or decorum despite their equally dazzling stature.

8. Among the many things that Madonna needs to learn as a matter of urgency is the decency of telling the truth. For her to tell the whole world that she is building schools in Malawi when she has actually only contributed to the construction of classrooms is not compatible with manners of someone who thinks she deserves to be revered with state grandeur. The difference between a school and a class room should be the most obvious thing for a person demanding state courtesy to decipher.

9. For her to accuse Mrs. Oponyo for indiscretions that have clearly arisen from her personal frustrations that her ego has not been massaged by the state is uncouth, and speaks volumes of a musician who desperately thinks she must generate recognition by bullying state officials instead of playing decent music on the stage.

10. For all that is known, Mrs. Oponyo has never been responsible for arranging state meetings with foreigners who are looking for those meetings. If Madonna was indeed a VVIP and a regular guest of State Governments as she wants to be seen and treated, she would have been familiar with procedures that have to be followed to get such meetings. They don’t happen by simply sneaking into a country whose President and Government you scarcely desire to meet.

11. Even if Madonna followed the procedures to have her meetings with the President or government officials, the administration reserved all its rights to grant the meetings or not.

It must be noted that the President, Her Excellency Dr. Joyce Banda and her Government are ready to welcome any philanthropist seeking to assist in improving the welfare of the people of Malawi knowing that Her Excellency, herself, is a known philanthropist. However, acts of kindness must always remain as such; they must not smack of blackmail. In addition, let philanthropists not hold to ransom the President and any official of her Government because they showed some kindness to any Malawian.

Whereupon Madonna’s PR guy Trevor Neilson (who doesn’t seem to be too great at his job judging by the way in which a routine baby-hugging photo-op has descended into a hilarious international shit show) hit back, giving quotes to The Globe and Mail reporter Geoffrey York. I like to think that by this time Neilson had googled “David James” and was aware that Joyce Banda just compared his client to a veteran English goalkeeper.

[Neilson] said Ms. Banda is “using her office to pursue her sister’s financial interests.” He also rejected the government’s claim that Madonna’s charity had merely built 10 classrooms, rather than 10 schools.

The communities that received the school buildings “are simply overjoyed to have them,” Mr. Neilson said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. “In many of these communities, students were previously learning under trees. … The schools were built in the model of schools all across the country and around the world.”

He said Ms. Banda appointed her sister to a senior position in the Education Ministry, where she is using her office “to pursue her grudge” against Madonna’s charity. “I have been contacted by other foreign donors to Malawi who are interested in why the government is behaving this way.”

It’s (another) very serious allegation against Joyce Banda (and her sister), and it’s hard to believe there’s much substance to it.

It’s worth reading what Wayne Barrett, one of the finest New York City journalists, reported about that audit of Banda’s sister. In a piece published in The Daily Beast in April 2011 on Raising Malawi and Madonna’s devotion to Kaballa, Barrett deals specifically with the charges against Oponyo:

More recently, (Mark) Fabiani (who did damage control for Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal) and Neilson have successfully diverted attention from Madonna and the (Kaballa) center by announcing that Neilson’s group has completed a report pinning much of the blame on Raising Malawi academy director Anjimile Oponyo, the sister of Malawi’s first female vice president. The report accused her of “outlandish expenditures,” including a high salary, a car, housing, and a golf-club membership. Putting aside the fact that these items were included in her contract by Madonna aides, the actual expenditures seem trivial in the face of the $3.8 million lost on the school project. The golf membership cost a mere $461.27 a year and was offered as an aid to networking with government officials and potential donors. The car that was bought for her was a reconditioned 1996 Toyota. Her salary, $96,000, was actually a pay cut from previous positions she had held at the World Bank and the United Nations. Oponyo, who was interviewed by Madonna herself, agreed to move to the impoverished country with four of her six children. (If she had been posted in Malawi by the U.S. State Department, she would have received cost-of-living and hardship allowances, and educational and living-quarters benefits that would have added $150,000 to her salary.)

Also, two long pieces in The New Yorker and New York Magazine on Raising Malawi’s failures basically conclude that Nielsen may have planted a smear story about Oponyo in The New York Times that popularized all the accusations of “outlandish expenditures” against Oponyo.

Interestingly, while Malawi’s opposition parties have aggressively tried to smear Banda — everything from saying she goes on too many expensive trips abroad to coming up with misogynist nicknames for her – they haven’t sought to exploit the “scandal” Madonna and her people have cooked up over Anjimile Oponyo.

Banda’s predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika made himself the country’s biggest landowner, built a vast mansion with suitcases of cash stashed under the bed, went on two-week-long holidays to Macau and appointed his brother as foreign minister. Joyce Banda isn’t perfect (we wish she’d directed some of that ire at IMF boss Christine Lagarde, who also visited Malawi this year, did get the red-carpet treatment and is doing a lot more damage to the country right now) but she’s not in this for the money. Little wonder that Madonna’s attempt to save face after her scolding by rehashing the stereotype of the corrupt African leader rings hollow, and a bit desperate.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.