by Harvey C.C. Banda
14 May was a very popular day during the one party regime in Malawi. It was a day when Malawians from all walks of life, whether they liked or not, commemorated the birthday of the then His Excellency the Life President Ngwazi Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda (may his soul rest in peace). This year, like most years during the multi-party dispensation, this day passed largely unnoticed. In fact, 14th May is no longer a public holiday in Malawi. 2015 marks eighteen years since his passing in 1997. In this article I reflect in passing on the legacy of Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda in the history of Malawi. I argue that although Kamuzu Banda, like any other human being, had his own weaknesses and strengths, politically he left behind a resounding and lasting legacy.
During the years before the transition to multi-party politics in 1994, 14 May was as important in Malawi as other key public holidays like 6 July, the day Malawians celebrate the attainment of independence (in 1964) and 3 March (Martyrs Day), when Malawians remember the sacrifice that Malawians made in fighting against the oppressive colonial rule. Most of these holidays have lost touch over the years. On 3 March in the past, for example, people had to stay away from their daily business. This was a must and anything to the contrary drew the wrath of the state machinery: the price for such an act was one year detention with releas the following March. Members of the Malawi Youth League (MYL), a wing under the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), had their intelligence ‘ears’ everywhere in the country and regularly pounced on offenders.
One of the controversies not yet settled among historians about Kamuzu Banda surrounds his year of birth. This is an issue which, to an extent, is associated more with myths than reality. So many contradictory years have been advanced on the birth of one man: Kamuzu. The following are some of the years in question: 1896; 1898; 1902; and 1906. In my view, this is not surprising for two main reasons: first, the question of literacy levels then among parents as mission-led education was just being introduced in different parts of the country from the 1880s onwards. As a result of this, some parents in the rural areas were still illiterate and could not remember and record the years of birth of their children. Second, the early life of Kamuzu is clouded in mystery, for example, his early schooling and how he travelled to South Africa en route to the United States of America to further his education. In this connection, his year of birth is part and parcel of this deadening mystery.
The following account illustrates the mystery in question. According to K.K. Virmani, in his book Dr Banda: In the Making of Malawi (1992), Dr Banda was born of Chewa parents in Kasungu district in 1902. However, Rev. Msokera Phiri, who claimed to be Dr Banda’s uncle, maintained that he was born in 1898. When the young Banda came of age, he went to Livingstonia Mission for his junior primary school education. Here it was Rev. Phiri, then in the employ of the mission, who looked after the young Banda. History indicates that Phiri left Livingstonia Mission for Hartley in Zimbabwe; leaving Banda behind. Aged thirteen, Banda wanted to join the teacher training course at Livingstonia, but was suspected of cheating during the entrance examinations and was, thereafter, expelled. However, the story goes, Banda was not cheating, but he was actually leaning towards another student in front of him, trying to see clearly the blackboard because of sight problems. Following his expulsion, young Banda joined his uncle in Zimbabwe. However, at Hartley both did not stay long before moving to South Africa in 1917. After briefly working in the mines, Banda joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Johannesburg in 1922. It was this church which provided financial assistance for his further education in America from 1925 onwards.
Independent Malawi was soon associated with a poor human rights record: purging of political opponents, for example, through detention without trial; repression and stifling of any independent political activity; exiling of political opponents; and official discrimination of religious minorities, a good example of which are the Jehova’s witnesses (the latter’s offence was their utter refusal to join the MCP). In order to do all these, the MCP was remodelled and took on board bodies such as the paramilitary Malawi Young Pioneers (MYP) and the Malawi Youth League. These two were eventually armed with powers of arrest. It is fascinating to note that officially the MYP was aimed at imparting agricultural skills to a cross-section of Malawians. In practice, the truth was actually the opposite and this was merely a front. In some cases, the MYL was seemingly more powerful than the Malawi Police forces in as far as the treatment of offenders and suspects is concerned.
As if this was not enough, Dr. Banda’s regime strongly promoted nepotism and tribalism. In this connection, although Malawi was described as an ethnically homogenous country, it had been riven by deep ethnic and regional tensions. President Banda seemed to favour the Chewa from the Central Region against the Tumbuka of the Northern Region, on the one hand, and the Yao and the Lhomwe of the Southern Region, on the other hand. It is unfortunate that the signs and symptoms of such regionalism and nepotism are still visible in democratic Malawi up to the present day.
On a positive note, however, Dr. Banda ushered in what may be described as genuine and lasting development. He embarked on massive infrastructural development throughout the country. This resulted in the construction of roads, schools, hospitals and market centres. These structures are still solid and in use up to date. The University of Malawi, with several constituent colleges, attest to this. The only drawback is that, like many other aspects, such development initiatives were regionally-based, with the Northern Region lagging behind among the three regions. Sadly, again, this trend has continued up to date. Realising that Malawi had an agrarian economy, relying mainly on tobacco, he encouraged the cultivation of cash crops in addition to maize, the staple food crop. He also made deliberate efforts to provide a market for the farm produce: the Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (ADMARC). Through this structure, farmers took farming as an occupation because of the assurance of the steady market for their produce. However, one persistent outcry amongst farmers were persistent low buying prices by ADMARC; a sign of exploitation, indeed.
Furthermore, Malawians were generally hard working, industrious and disciplined people. This can be attributed to the four cornerstones (locally dubbed ngodya zinayi) on which MCP was built: unity, loyalty, obedience and discipline. This was reinforced by songs which had been coined to that effect. These songs were a common feature during public celebrations through such traditional dances as Chimtali, Chiwoda, Gule wamkulu, Mganda and Malipenga. All these were virtually thrown to the dogs at the onset of democratic governance in 1994.
In a nutshell, Malawi under Br Hastings Kamuzu Banda was both ‘a totalitarian state’ and ‘a personal despotism’ in which the state apparatus was answerable to one man: His Excellency the Life President Ngwazi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda. However, if one reflects on the negative and positive aspects of Dr Banda’s legacy, the positive aspects, in my view, far outweigh the negative ones. However, this depends on one’s view point and the focal point at hand. It should, therefore, not be surprising to see other people reaching a totally different and contrary conclusion. I am persuaded to arrive at this conclusion by comparing Dr Banda’s legacy with the legacies of the successive democratically-elected governments in Malawi since 1994. To a large extent democratic Malawi is relatively in socio-economic and political shambles!