He looked like an eccentric version of the typical African dictator: he proclaimed himself president for life, locked up his opponents, lived royally in a poor country, carried a fly whisk and went to church. But Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who ruled Malawi for its first three decades, was no cardboard cut-out African ruler. He had another life, some would say another persona. The two strands, never reconciled, made him one of the most enigmatic characters of 20th-century Africa.
Dr Banda was officially 91 but his oldest friends believe he was at least ten years older. He said he was born in the tiny British protectorate of Nyasaland, now Malawi, in Central Africa, and had walked to South Africa as a young man. But when he returned, some half a century later, he knew no local language and, extraordinary for Africa, had no relations. Some doubted that he had come from there.
While working in the mines in South Africa he eagerly educated himself and, through church connections, obtained an education in America. He qualified with high grades as a doctor and won a place to study medicine at Glasgow University in Scotland. He arrived in 1937 and was to make Britain his home for the next 20 years, establishing his medical practice in poor areas of wartime and post-war Britain. Attracted by his ability as a doctor, his courtesy and his puritan simplicity, rich and poor flocked to his surgery—some achievement for a black man in Britain at that time. He was teetotal, celibate and dressed like an undertaker. To the elders of the Church of Scotland he was a living tribute to Christian missionary endeavour in Africa, and they made him an elder too.
A puritan no longer
In the post-war independence stirrings in Africa, Dr Banda played an ambivalent role. Originally a moderate, he kept his distance from firebrand leaders such as the Ghanaian Kwame Nkrumah, whom he patronisingly referred to as “my boy”. But when the British tried to forge a union out of the two Rhodesias, now Zambia and Zimbabwe, and Nyasaland, he turned radical.
His personal life changed. In 1953 the puritanical doctor had a child with his married English secretary, was cited in her divorce, and fled to Ghana, then the Gold Coast. Four years later his practice there was closed because, it was said, he was conducting illegal abortions. By now the movement for independence in Africa was in full swing and he moved to what he claimed was his birthplace. Other independence fighters in Nyasaland bowed to his age and superior education and made him their leader.
From there his route to power was typical of the times: freedom rallies, imprisonment by the British authorities, release, tea with the governor, a constitutional conference and a flattering independence ceremony conducted by a British royal. He then set about getting rid of his most loyal followers, employing the same security laws he had campaigned against so vigorously. He once said they should be “food for crocodiles”. When old friends and supporters from Britain and America visited him, he could still be the quiet, courteous doctor they had loved so much, but if they mentioned politics he would become enraged, even hysterical. Once, stamping his feet, he screamed at his visitor that his opponents should “Rot! Rot! Rot!” in jail.
Was the culture gap between the Victorian-like persona he had created in America and Britain and the spirit of African freedom too great to be encompassed in one personality? Whatever, Malawi became a bizarre place under his rule. Mini skirts, long hair and other manifestations of western sexual liberalism were outlawed. He surrounded himself with hundreds of women dressed in clothes bearing his image who danced and chanted poems of praise. In their presence he became visibly excited. A former nurse, Cecilia Kadzimira, became his “official hostess”. They never married, though her power over him grew as he aged.
Turning his back on former allies in the struggle for independence, Dr Banda gave diplomatic support to South Africa’s white rulers, who built him a palace and a new capital in return. In Malawi his attitude to Africans was colonial. He saw them as poor benighted people who needed his guidance and a British education. The Kamuzu Academy was founded, a college based on Eton, at which British teachers inculcated Latin and Greek into favoured African children.
He avoided grand socialist plans which lured other African countries to destruction; instead, he gathered the most valuable parts of the economy into a company which he headed. Malawians were told to prosper by tilling the land. They stayed poor and Dr Banda spent at least a month a year at a top London hotel. His end was nearly ignominious. He was bundled from power in an election in 1994 after his old ally Britain abandoned him. He gave up gracefully but was put on trial accused of killing four politicians in 1983. He was acquitted. Prison would not have been a fitting end for such an intriguing, if flawed, character.–Source: Economist