The Woyingi Blog

BBC Interview with Thandika Mkandawire about Malawi’s Journey to Independance

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Independence for 17 African Nations, including Nigeria. The achievements of this landmark year inspired other African nations’ independence movements. To mark this year in African history, Tanzanian journalist Adam Lusekelo, presented on BBC Radio 4 the five episode documentary series Africa at 50: Wind of Change in which he interviews five Africans who grew up within African British colonies that achieved independence in the 50s and 60s and lived through this pivotal year in African history. There are five episodes in the series, each focused on one former British colony. Episode One is an interview with former Deputy Editor for BBC Worldservice Elizabeth Ohene from Ghana, which achieved independence in 1957; Episode Two is an interview with writer Adewale Maja-Pearce from Nigeria, which achieved independence in 1960; Episode Three is an interview with Brigadier General Hashim Mbita from Tanzania, which achieved independence in 1961; Episode Four is an interview with historian Zarina Patel from Kenya, which achieved independence in 1963; and finally Episode Five is an interview with Professor Thandika Mkandawire from Malawi, which achieved independence in 1964.

The title of the series comes from what is popularly known as the “Wind of Change’ Speech by British Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The speech demonstrated that the Conservative-controlled British government, which had earlier halted the decolonization process begun by the Labour government from 1945 to 1951, intended to grant independence to Britain’s African colonies and that these were indeed the last days of the British Empire. Although actually first read on January 10th 1960 in Accra, Ghana, the speech first garnered media attention in Britain and across Africa when it was read to the apartheid South African government on February 3 1960 during Macmillan’s tour of British African colonies, which began on January 6th 1960 . In the speech Macmillan states:

The wind of change is blowing through this [African] continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.

Although the speech showed support for the apartheid South African government, it also clearly expressed criticism of apartheid laws, as is demonstrated by the following statement:

As a fellow member of the Commonwealth it is our earnest desire to give South Africa our support and encouragement, but I hope you won’t mind my saying frankly that there are some aspects of your policies which make it impossible for us to do this without being false to our own deep convictions about the political destinies of free men to which in our own territories we are trying to give effect.

I chose to review the fifth Episode of this series because Malawi is a country I know very little about except from the media attention it has received because of American pop icon Madonna. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and Madonna, at the urging of Malawian Victoria Keelan, the managing director of a Malawian agricultural supply company, in 2006 visited the country (her first time in Africa) and made the controversial decision to adopt David Banda, a Malawian child of about two years old at the time who was suffering from malaria and pneumonia. Madonna set up the organization Raising Malawi, with Michael Berg, head of the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles,  in order to alleviate the extreme poverty experienced by Malawi’s orphans. In 2008, Madonna wrote, narrated and produced the documentary film I Am Because We Are, which depicts the plight of Malawi’s orphans, many of whom have lost parents to AIDS.

I always long to learn about African countries from Africans themselves instead of Western celebrities, journalists, and academics so the Africa at 50: Wind of Change Series was refreshing. This post is a review of Episode 5 of this series which focuses on Malawi through an interview with Thandika Mkandawire, who holds the first chair in African Development at the London School of Economics, and is the former Director of the United Nations Research Institute on Social Development and the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA).

When it was a British colony, Malawi was known as British Central Africa and Nyasaland, after Lake Nyasa (Nyasa means lake in the language of the Yao people), now known as Lake Malawi in Malawi. The word Malawi in Chewa, the national language of the Republic of Malawi, is thought to derive from Maravi, the name of the state built by Chewa iron workers in the area of Lake Malawi. The Chewa were migrants to the region from the modern day Republic of Congo. Maravi is believed to mean “rays of light”.

The following is a Synopsis of the programme on BBC Radio 4:

Malawi was the first country in the south to gain independence. By 1958, Nyasaland – as it was then called – was experiencing a mounting tide of political unrest. Dr. Hastings Banda, a respected medical doctor based for many years in the UK and Ghana, returned to lead the struggle for independence.

Professor Thandika Makandawire was still at school when a state of emergency was declared in Malawi in 1959, and Banda was arrested. It was a turning point in his life, and he became more active with the youth league of the nationalist movement. “You could see colonial rule was coming to an end”, says Makandawire. “It was very exciting for a young person.”

When Harold Macmillan toured southern Africa in early 1960, Makandawire took part in a rowdy demonstration outside his hotel. The police reacted violently, and he was arrested. But he believes that the incident dispelled the “myth of peaceful natives” and helped inform Macmillan’s “Wind of Change” speech.

In 1962, Thandika Makandawire won a scholarship to study in the USA. “The dream was that I’d go to the US and come back as soon as I could.” But within three months of independence, the new government was convulsed by a cabinet crisis and Makandawire’s passport was withdrawn. Unable to return to Malawi, he spent 30 years in exile.

Despite the price he paid, Makandawire is proud of the role he played in the independence struggle. “In my lifetime, I have seen the whole of the continent liberated. That’s priceless.”

Producer: Ruth Evans
A Ruth Evans Production for BBC Radio 4.

In the programme. Thandika Mkandawire reminisces about his student days during the final years of British colonial rule in Malawi from about 1958 to 1964.

Mkandawire explains that in the case of Malawi, there is no reason to romanticize British Colonial government as having been better than African government. The colonial government in Nyasaland was called the British Overseas Military Authority (BOMA). Mkandawire describes it as a garrison government that had little interaction with the countryside and could hardly be compared to a real state government that oversaw education, health care and the like.

Sir Hastings Banda, who had leaved abroad since 1925, and was educated as a doctor returned to Malawi in 1958. Throughout the episode, you can hear excerpts from Banda’s speeches and interviews at the time. Mkandawire observes that because Banda was an educated Malawian, and there were so few educated, he was seen as a national hero who could lead the country to independence. When he returned, according to Mkandawire, Malawians got “all worked up” and were clamouring for independence. This led to a crackdown of colonial authority. A state of emergency was declared in 1959, Banda, along with hundreds of Malawians involved with the independence movement were detained and imprisoned in Southern Rhodesia. Mkandawire remembers that the only African teacher at his secondary school was detained and eventually the headmaster of the school decided to shut it down because the students were proving too unruly due to the growing nationalist youth movement. Mkandawire reflects that the declaration of a State of Emergency was a turning point in his life as it was at this point that he became more active in the nationalist youth movement. He says that this moment in Malawi’s history was “incredibly exciting for a young person.”

in 1960 17 African nations became independent. Mkandawire reflects that although this gave the Malawian national movement hope, there was also a suspicion that things were easier in West Africa because they were not facing an apartheid regime. At the time, Nyasaland had been recently forced into a federation with Northern and Southern Rhodesia, states settled and ruled by Whites.

Mkandawire reflects that Blantyre, the second largest city in Malawi, was the least segregated town in Southern Africa at the time and many South African liberals would come to Blantyre. According to Mkandawire, African American musician Louis Armstrong, during his African tour, only agreed to play in Blantyre so many Whites from South Africa and the Rhodesias came  Blantyre to listen to him perform. After secondary school, Mkandawire went to Blantyre to work, while waiting for his Cambridge School Certificate Exams results. He found employment in the Public Works Department of the Colonial government. He also began writing for the nationalist newspaper, The Malawi News, in the evening.

Mkandawire had read that Nigerians had demonstrated for the release of Banda while British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was visiting their country so Mkandawire and his fellow young nationalists organized a demonstration in front of the hotel where Macmillan was staying when he came to Malawi. According to Mkandawire, the colonial police were unprepared for the demonstration, and, embarrassed, responded brutally. British media that came with Macmillan were shocked by the level of violence meted out by the police, because they didn’t understand that “this is what happened in the backyard of the empire”, according to Mkandawire.

Mkandawire was arrested and detained over night. The police, according to Mkandawire, cooked up a story, accusing him and his comrades of inciting a riot and sentenced them to 18 months in prison. Orton Chirwa was Mkandawire and his comrades’ lawyer and he had an easy time winning the case on appeal. Chirwa, excited for having won their freedom, took Mkandawire and his comrades, still dressed in prison garb, to Banda’s surgery in order to celebrate. Banda was furious that Chirwa had brought them there and they all had to leave. Mkandawire didn’t understand why Banda didn’t want to celebrate their victory and he states “He was a strange man.”

Mkandawire shares another incident involving Banda’s temper. Mkandawire was at Banda’s house in order to interview him. He thought that Banda had asked him what he wanted to drink so Mkandawire said he would like to drink Coke. Banda was furious and insulted that Mkandawire would dare think he could drink Coke in Banda’s house. Banda took the incident all the way to the Malawi Congress Party’s disciplinary committee because he felt so insulted by Mkandawire. 

Before Banda returned to Malawi, Mkandawire reflects, the Malawian nationalist movement had fairly democratic internal politics. Banda didn’t think this was  good for mobilizing a movement so he centralized power. Mkandawire states at this point that “The Young Pioneers was a paramilitary thing,” and that “Among the young people there were a lot of jokes about a dictatorship emerging but I don’t think we fully understood what it would mean eventually.”

In 1962, Mkandawire won a scholarship to study journalism in the US. He had hoped to return to Malawi as soon as he finished his studies but this was not to be. In 1964, Malawi was granted independence. Three months later, there was a cabinet crisis and the national movement was split. Because Mkandawire supported the opposition to Banda, he was unable to return to Malawi. He couldn’t stay in the United States either because his passport was withdrawn so he had to become a refugee, living in exile in Sweden.

According to Mkandawire, the cabinet crisis was a result of all these grievances Party members had with Banda. These grievances had been suppressed during the struggle for independence in the name of solidarity but after independence,  Party members became frustrated with Banda’s disrespect (He called him his boys). They wanted him to change his behaviour. He said he wouldn’t and if they didn’t like it he would resign. They asked him not to resign but instead he took revenge on them. Mkandawire reflects that the members of the cabinet were a brilliant group of young people and “if they had been allowed to stay on it would have been a different story for Malawi history.”

Banda eventually consolidated his dictatorship by declaring Malawi a one-party state and in 1971 he declared himself President for Life. However, by 1994, the Malawi people had had enough and despite that fact that the Young Pioneers were still on the loose, according to Mkandawire, people voted to end one-party rule in a referendum in 1994. It was only at this time that Mkandawire could return to Malawi after an absent of some 30 years. He had only been able to see his parents twice during his exile. Luckily, his parents were still alive and able to meet their grandchildren.

Mkandawire reflects that in Malawi today many people are still hurt and suffering because there has been no Truth and Reconciliation Process. People still don’t know who betrayed them or informed on them to the Banda government.

When asked what young Malawians think about colonialism, Mkandawire states that young Malawians just see that as part of the past because all the problems they have faced have been under an African government. It’s only Mkandawire’s generation that still talks about colonialism, he says. Mkandawire states “I’m proud that I was very involved in it. It was worth it. In my lifetime I have seen the whole continent liberated. That’s priceless. That’s priceless.”

One remarkable thing about the entire interview is that Mkandawire is laughing throughout it, even about troubling incidents. I guess, as the saying goes, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.

Personal Reflections

Each episode in this series was only about 15 minutes long. Enough time for a good interview, however, seeing as many people don’t know much about the colonial or postcolonial histories of African countries there is a lot can be misunderstood or simply overlooked with such a short interview. For example, on a few occasions, Mkandawire makes reference to the Young Pioneers as “a paramilitary thing” and that even during the 1994 referendum he says “the Young Pioneers were still on the loose”. Who the Young Pioneers are is never explained; it’s as if it is assumed that the listener already has a firm grip on Malawian history. Perhaps in Britain more people are informed but for a North American listener like myself, I was at a loss. Luckily, there is the internet and I soon discovered who the Young Pioneers were. According to Timothy Parsons in his book Race, Resistance, and the Boys Scout Movement in British Colonial Africa:

Banda recognized the political value of a disciplined youth movement and sent representatives to Ghana to study Nkrumah’s National Workers’ Brigade. After deciding that the Ghanaians lacked sufficient discipline, he turned to Israel for assistance in developing a paramilitary youth organization modeled on Gadna, the Israeli youth corps. Banda won funding for the plan from the World Bank and other international donors by depicting it as a development project. In reality, Banda’s Young Pioneers were a paramilitary political organization that helped him transform Malawi into a single party state. Recruits studied Kamuzism, the “teaching, philosophy and life of Ngwazi Dr. Kamuzu Banda, Father and Founder of the Nation of Malawi.” By the late 1960s, there were approximately three thousand Young Pioneers, five hundred of whom received full military training. They served as Banda’s personal bodyguard and had total immunity from arrest by the civil police. By the 1970s the Young Pioneers were better trained and equipped than the regular Malawian army and provided the coercive underpinning of Banda’s authoritarian regime.

So, it appears that the creation of the Young Pioneers was crucial in the development of Banda’s dictatorship. Another fact which I think it was necessary to mention in the episode is the truly dire consequences of Banda’s tyranny. Orton Chirwa is mentioned by Mkandawire as having been his lawyer. But Orton Chirwa is a central figure of Malawi’s colonial history and he was a leader of the opposition to Banda. Chirwa would pay dearly for this, eventually dying in prison in 1992. According to Chirwa’s Obituary in the Independent:

Orton Chirwa was Malawi’s first black barrister. A founder of the Nyasaland African Congress, he was one of a group of young nationalist leaders who in 1958 took the fateful decision to invite Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, then living in Ghana, to return to Malawi. Chirwa and his colleagues felt that the experience and gravitas of an old man – Banda was already about 60 – would impress their African constituency.

In later years Banda would boast how he had single-handedly smashed the ‘stupid’ Central African Federation. Orton Chirwa and others of his generation were written out of history.

In 1959 the Federal Government banned the NAC and arrested many of its leaders, including Banda. As the senior leader at liberty Orton Chirwa set up the Malawi Congress Party and became its first president. The following year, after Banda’s release, he stood down and handed him the leadership.

At independence in 1964 Orton Chirwa became Attorney General, but fell out with Banda over the slow pace of African advancement in the civil service. Banda sacked Chirwa and three other ministers, driving them into exile.

Chirwa settled in Tanzania, where he taught and practised law. His new political party, the Malawi Freedom Movement, appears to have had little active support inside Malawi which was now a one-party state with Banda president for life.

On Christmas Eve 1981, Orton, Vera and their son Fumbani were visiting Zambia when they were abducted by Malawian security officials. What exactly happened that night remains a mystery. The Chirwas maintained that they were visiting a sick relative. Perhaps they were tricked into going to the border area. The lurid official description of the now elderly Orton ‘infiltrating’ the country with two members of his family was clearly nonsense.

Two years later Orton and Vera were put on trial for treason. Malawi’s legal system had changed since he was Attorney General. The Chirwas were tried before a ‘traditional’ court, with judges directly answerable to Banda. There was no defence counsel and they were not allowed to call witnesses. The procedural irregularities were bizarre: thus the police officer in charge of the investigation doubled as an ‘independent’ handwriting expert.

They were found guilty – of course – and sentenced to death. In 1984, after many appeals from governments and colleagues from their student days in London, Banda commuted their sentences to life imprisonment.

Life imprisonment proved to be a further sentence of death. The Chirwas were denied contact with each other and the outside world. Last year Orton tried to smuggle letters out to Tanzania. They were intercepted and he was punished with two days’ squatting in handcuffs and leg-irons, without lavatory facilities.

It seems strange to me that Chirwa’s tragic fate was not mentioned at all in the episode. That said, the interview did help me gain a better understanding of Malawi’s history and politics and has pointed me in the right direction for further study.

It appears to me that Banda wasn’t really needed for Malawi to gain independence. It seems that the Malawi people placed so much stock in this idea that Banda, as an educated man who had lived in the West, could properly lead them to independence because he would be in a better position to stand up the British because he could speak their language and was educated in their schools. But he had been away from Malawi from 1925 to 1958. How could he even be considered to still really understand the needs of his country of origin? I think that too much importance has been given to Western education and experience by colonized peoples, much to their detriment.  Banda proved to not only be a dictator but to have a great deal of contempt for his own culture. At one point, he banned the speaking of Chewa, the national language in schools and demanded that students learn Greek and Latin. This sort of move seems straight out of the book of a British Colonial Headmaster. Banda also had a close relationship with apartheid South Africa, having full diplomatic relations with them, something which most independent African nations refused to do. I just wonder what made Malawians feel that Banda deserved to be a national hero? This begs the question: Is it better to be oppressed by foreigners or your own people?

I wonder if Madonna has ever consulted with Mkandawire in relation to her work with Malawian orphans, considering that he is an expert on development. One of the things that has always troubled me about Western celebrities who wish to do good in Africa is their reliance on expertise from non-African economists. It appears that many don’t seem to even know that Africa has produced economists and experts on development, despite the fact that many of these Africans are academics working in the West.

Further Reading/Listening:

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s February 3 1960 “Winds of Change” Speech available online

Adam Lusekelo’s 2003 BBC Radio Documentary A Fresh Start for Africa available for listening online

Adam Lusekelo’s Blog

I Am Because We Are, Madonna’s documentary about orphans in Malawi, available to view online

Works by Thandika Mkandawire

Our Continent, our Future: African Perspectives on Structural Adjustment by Thandika Mkandawire and Charles C. Soludo (Text available online)

Social Policy and Human Development (Essay available online)

Targeting and Universalism in Developing Countries (Essay available online)

On Tax Efforts and Colonial Heritage in Africa (Essay available online)

Institutional Monocroping and Monotasking In Africa (Essay available online)

Thinking About Developmental States in Africa (Essay available online)

Keynote Speech (2006) available online

Subverting Banda’s Dictatorship in Malawi: Orality as Counter-Discourse in Jack Mapanje’s Of Chameleons and Gods by Reuben Makayiko Chirambo (essay available online)

Gender and Ethnicity in Banda’s Malawi by Edwin S. Segal (essay available online)