previous sub-section
5— Tribalism in the Political History of Malawi1
next chapter

Malawian Politics and the Rise of Chewa Ethnicity

In 1943, a group of anti-colonial intellectuals from the Southern and Northern Provinces formed the Nyasaland Educated African Council to press for concessions from the government that would open up avenues for African advancement. By 1944 the name had been changed to the Nyasaland African Congress, but the aims were still the same, with a great stress upon access to more education and the appropriate rewards for such education. Internal divisions and a lack of appeal at the village level, however, kept the Congress weak and ineffectual into the 1950s.[149]

In the 1950s the twin issues of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and the colonial government's agricultural and soil conservation policies galvanized opposition to the state at all levels of Nyasaland's society and throughout the country. The result was the creation of a coalition of interests that revivified the moribund Nyasaland African Congress. After the return of Kamuzu Banda to the country in 1958 after a long absence overseas, organizational work aimed at exploiting village-level discontent was accelerated and marshalled widespread popular support—notably in the Central Province, hitherto outside the currents of African politics in Nyasaland. In 1960 the Congress changed its name to the Malawi Congress Party (MCP).

The coalition that comprised the MCP proved strong enough to undermine the Federation and win self-government in 1964. These were the aims of all its members and the extent of their vision. Yet Congress was nonetheless a coalition of widely differing interests. Although these interests were essentially economic in nature, through the limitations of Congress's own analyses they came to be expressed largely in terms of ethnicity and regionalism. For the Livingstonia-educated Tumbuka-speakers of the north, politics was still fundamentally about the possibilities of African advancement. The language campaigns of the 1930s had been fought to protect the interests of those Tumbuka-speakers educated in


Mission schools. The strongest objection of northern intellectuals to Federation was that it blocked promotions for which their education had prepared them. With independence, the key issue for these northerners would be the rapid Africanization of the bureaucracy, the hoped-for pay-off for all the years of educational investment.

In this desire they were supported by southerners—both Mang'anja and Yao—who had acquired their education largely at the Blantyre Mission and who also coveted positions in the civil service and in commerce. For the majority of people in the south, however, politics was about an end to the hated thangata system and access to land. By the 1940s, southerners were the most uniformly poor people in the country. Those living on the estates still paid rent in kind, while those on Crown Land were, years in advance of others in the country, being driven on to the labour market by the growing shortage of land. Politics in the south looked for the freedom to extend the villages on to empty estates and for the ability to enjoy whatever benefits cash-cropping might offer.

Politics in the Central Province, where mission education had had far less impact and Chewa cultural institutions had largely endured, were, by further contrast, essentially about agricultural policy. From the days of the tobacco boom of the 1920s and the confrontations with the state about pricing and buying policies for tobacco and maize in subsequent decades, spokesmen for the local Chewa-speakers had sought to secure for Africans all the opportunities of the European planter and the Asian trader. One of the most consistent claims of the new President of Malawi, Kamuzu Banda, himself a Chewa from the Central Province, was that Africans should be allowed to grow anything and to engage freely in business.

Immediately after independence in 1964, the underlying cleavages in the MCP coalition surfaced in the so-called 'Cabinet Crisis' that occurred at the end of the year, in which President Banda found himself challenged by a group of young, well-educated cabinet ministers from the Northern and Southern Regions. One of the central issues that provoked it was President Banda's unwillingness to improve civil servants' pay or to proceed with the Africanization of the bureaucracy that the politicians who represented the educated petty bourgeoisie from both the north and the south so deeply wanted.[150] As Rotburg has observed, the African civil servants were 'the group within Malawi that, compared to its own expectations, had benefited least by independence'.[151]

Although the Cabinet Crisis has usually been interpreted in terms of ideological or generational conflict, the regional and ethnic dimensions were clearly evident. Comments made in Parliament by Richard Chidzanja, an important Member of Parliament from the Central Region, illustrate this point nicely. He declared the support of the Chewa people for President Banda and then went on to complain that the educated young politicians from the north and south had long despised the Chewa and their culture and had denied them a fair share of what politics had been meant to achieve.[152] As the Crisis developed, none of the cabinet ministers who resigned or who were dismissed were Chewa. Chiefs from both the Northern and Southern Regions, however, were deposed, while three out of five district councils in the north and six out of ten in the south were dissolved. But no chief or district council was touched in the Central Region, where support for Banda was unwavering.[153]

Part of the reason why this pattern appeared lay in the history of the Congress Party itself and the way its political coalition was built up. Tensions within it, dating from as early as the 1940s and springing from the different regional perceptions of the main goals of the struggle against Federation, had acquired a


strong congruence with ethnic distinctions. One aspect encompassed the division between the Yao and Makololo chiefly elites and the subordinated Nguru/ Lomwe and Mang'anja peoples. In Chiradzulu district, to cite but one example, the 'anti-Federation' disturbances of July and August 1953 took the form of attacks on those Yao chiefs who had manoeuvred themselves into positions of power between 1915 and 1930. Meetings called by Congress supporters successfully demanded the removal of several Yao chiefs. The meetings ended in violence, and one chiefs house was burned down. The official enquiry, in true post-Chilembwe tradition, blamed 'immigrants from Mozambique' for the disturbance and pointed to Congress's involvement. Congress had consciously become the supporter of the oppressed Nguru/Lomwe in this ethnically defined local battle as part of its strategy to build an effective mass base.[154] Not surprisingly, the Nguru/Lomwe became among the firmest supporters of Congress, which demanded an end to thangata, transferring this loyalty to President Banda after the Cabinet Crisis. In the Census of 1966, therefore, after years in which many Nguru had passed themselves off as 'Yao', large numbers of them identified themselves as 'Chewa', cementing thereby their alliance with the victorious President Banda.[155] This strain of anti-chief, anti-Yao sentiment eventually encompassed such popular figures as Henry Chipembere, an educated Yao cabinet minister, at the time of the Cabinet Crisis.

Similarly, in the lower Shire area, President Banda, in his pursuit of a 'Chewa' political base for himself, was able to build on anti-Makololo sentiment that was present because Makololo chiefs had been prominent in enforcing contour ridging during the period of Federation. Reinstating Paramount Chief Lundu a century after the last Lundu had been dispossessed by the Makololo, Dr Banda made one his most blatantly ethnic speeches:

And I am happy that because of my harping on the fact that all the people here are, in fact, Chewa, not Mang'anja, the people themselves have realised and admitted the truth, this pleases me.

I am happy because this is why I have done this [resurrected the paramountcy], because the people themselves have recognised the truth, have admitted the truth they are, in fact, Achewa, although for the past one or two hundred years they have been calling themselves Anyanja or Amang'anja.[156]

By such alliance-building among people who had been subordinate to the Yao and Makololo political elites, President Banda was able to lump togther the various dialect groups of the Southern Region—Chipeta, Nyanja, Mag'anja, even 'Lomwe'—to produce a national population that was, at least on paper, more than 50 per cent 'Chewa'.[157]

The reasons why the Cabinet Crisis took on an anti-northern aspect were rather different, for northern leaders had long been at the very heart of the nationalist struggle and had supplied many of the movement's foremost intellectuals. The difficulty with the northerners lay in the conflict between their education and President Banda's vision of the nature of the future Malawi. As the planters' spokesman, R.S. Hynde, had expressed it to the commissioners enquiring into the Chilembwe Rising in 1915, 'This country is agricultural and there is no room for the highly educated native.'[158] If it seems excessive to suggest that President Banda, so far from being a reincarnated John Chilembwe, is closer to being a reincarnated Governor Sir George Smith, the fact nonetheless remains that the philosophy and the practice of government evolved by the British in response to the Chilembwe Rising show marked similarities to those espoused by President Banda himself.


Both the colonial rulers and the post-colonial ruler have assumed that paternalism—the landowner dealing with his peasants, the chief with his subjects, the master with his servants, the President with his people—constitutes the form of government best suited both to the economy and the general temperament of Malawians. President Banda, in the process of acquiring a plethora of plantations for himself, appropriated the planters' ideology as well.[159] Bizarrely, but entirely logically, President Banda made speeches boasting that the clinics and schools on his own estates were superior to those available from the state. In this situation, the aspirations of northern and southern intellectuals for African advancement on the basis of education and merit posed a double threat in 1964: the threat of a bureaucracy dominated by those who were not members of President Banda's own broadly defined 'Chewa' political base, and the threat of the evolution and entrenchment of an educated middle class that might challenge the personalized patron-client relationship of the President with 'his' people.

President Banda turned to patronage to cement ties with his loyal political base. The most profitable segment of the agricultural economy at independence was the European tea and tobacco estate sector. After independence, the state began acquiring European tobacco estates and reselling them to members of the petty bourgeoisie who had remained loyal to Banda. Necessary loans came from the state's agricultural marketing board, which in effect transferred capital obtained from the peasantry to the new bourgeoisie through its control of prices paid for peasant-produced commodities.[160] Furthermore, the Malawi Land Act of 1965 gave the President the power to grant private estates on leasehold over huge areas of the country, including even areas developed for peasant agriculture under the aegis of international agencies.[161] Through these two means, President Banda was able to consolidate his ties of patronage with his chosen political allies and, by retaining the power to revoke leases, could at the same time ensure that no independent bourgeoisie would emerge to challenge him.[162]

This dispensation of specific patronage to loyal followers was paralleled by the extension of general patronage to the most loyal area of the country, the Chewa-dominated Central Region. Many government institutions have been transferred from the Southern Region to the Central Region, most notably the capital itself. While the Central Region obtained only 11 per cent of development funds expended in 1967, it received 40 per cent by 1972–3.[163] Agricultural loans are largely restricted to farmers in the Central Region, and it was this area which marketed crops that provided fully 86 per cent of the surplus that the Farmers Marketing Board made in 1971–2.[164] Since the early 1970s governmental preference for investment in the fertile Central Region has been consistent.

President Banda, however, was himself sufficiently a culture broker to realize that something more was needed. In the aftermath of the Cabinet Crisis he moved swiftly to seek in Chewa institutions the basis of a new Chewa ethnic ideology which was to be projected on a national scale through state-controlled schools. This approach came naturally to Banda, who had been self-consciously a Chewa throughout his life. While studying in Chicago in the 1930s, he had been 'a very excellent informant' to Mark Hanna Watkins, the first grammarian of the language, and to this day Banda retains a fanatical devotion to the language and to what he conceives as its purity, ardently attempting to stop any adoptions from English into the language.[165] In addition to his abiding interest in Chewa language, Banda has long been interested in Chewa culture, and, with Cullen Young, he wrote Our African Way of Life in 1946.

As culture broker for the Chewa, Banda had a broader vision, however, than formulating an ideological statement for his ethnic group alone. He has instead


equated 'Malawian-ness' with Chewa-ness, and he has depicted the Chewa as the very soul of the country, often going as far as maintaining that many Yao and Lomwe people were actually Chewa people who did not realize it. During the years he was in Nyasaland after 1958 campaigning against the Federation, he frequently denounced signs of 'tribalism' in others, yet he also frequently emphasized that he was himself a Chewa.[166] In his speeches he has always been at pains to paint a picture of a glorious Chewa past. Using the alleged territorial extent of the ancient Maravi state of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, he has frequently asserted publicly that large parts of eastern Zambia and northern Mozambique should be under his rule.[167]

In short, Banda emphasized uniquely Chewa cultural attributes, not some sort of secular Malawian 'nationalism', and in his preoccupation with language, history, and culture, he was very much a latter-day Chewa version of Edward Manda and Yesaya Chibambo, like him, graduates of the Livingstonia Mission. Long defunct chiefdoms were resurrected. 'Authentic' clan names were revived. The 'correct' form of the Chewa language—the dialect understood by Banda—was stressed and the paramilitary Young Pioneers, made up of failed school-leavers, drilled it by rote into the school-children of non-Chewa areas.[168] The Chewa nyau societies, and especially their dances, had been long despised by the educated as a symbol of Chewa backwardness in a modern world. After the nyau societies demonstrated their loyalty to President Banda in the Cabinet Crisis by actively intimidating his opponents with physical threats, they became perhaps the heart of what is depicted as a national culture, even though they are the hallmark of Chewa culture and only that.[169]

The transformation of the nyau from the sign of backwardness to the symbol of authenticity was achieved with the aid of expatriate Africanist scholars, analogues of the Tumbuka's Cullen Young and the Ngoni's Margaret Read. Matthew Schoffeleers and Ian Linden, in their work, found great favour among Chewa-speaking intellectuals.[170] Schoffeleers was especially important because of his depiction of nyau as not only being at the very centre of Chewa art and culture, but, even more importantly, at the very root of Chewa resistance to colonialism and western cultural imperialism. With his timely writings, Schoffeleers became the source of a usable past for the developing ideology of the present.

By the same token, work at the University of Malawi on the history of the Yao has been highly revisionistic, concerned with demolishing the myths of Yao nationhood established in the inter-war period and with providing a history in terms of which the Yao are shown to have been defeated, scattered and politically disunited peoples with but limited territorial claims. This work has also stressed that many 'Yao' and 'Lomwe' people really belong to the Chewa group.[171] The message from the late 1960s into the 1980s was clear: the Chewa people and Chewa culture was the core of modern Malawi by right of being most ancient and least compromised by colonialism, and Malawi culture would be considered synonymous with Chewa culture.

But it was not enough to dispense patronage to supporters and develop a new ideology of Chewa ethnicity. Government policies also attacked the vested interests of the northern petty bourgeoisie. Because of their long history of having access to an educational system far superior to that existing elsewhere in the country, northerners had come to be 'over-represented' in important positions at independence and in the expansionist years that followed. At the University of Malawi, the seedbed for new technocrats, a disproportionately high number of places went to northerners.[172] In the civil service in 1969, out of the 113 highest-level Malawian civil servants, the Northern Region, with but 12 per cent of the


population, held over 50 per cent of the places, while southerners comprised most of the rest.[173] The established influence of educated northerners and southerners had to be lessened directly.

The first, appropriately symbolic signal of this attack upon northern influence occurred in mid-1968, when Tumbuka, the symbol of northern regionalism since the early 1930s, was abolished as an official language and Chewa was made the sole national language. No longer could Tumbuka be used in the press or on the radio, a situation which resulted in bitter resentment throughout the Northern Region, a resentment made worse by Chewa-speakers' triumphal assertions that other peoples of the country were cultureless because 'they had no language'. Soon afterwards, the Parliamentary Secretary for Education announced that all school-children who failed their required examination in the now-required courses in Chewa would have to re-sit all their examinations.[174] Soon afterwards, the establishment of the Malawi Examinations Board to replace the Cambridge Overseas Examination was followed by a change in examination grading policy which required both northerners and southerners to obtain considerably higher grades in their school-leaving examinations than those in the Central Region if they were to qualify for places in the secondary schools. While economic opportunities were channelled to the people of the Central Region, then, school fees throughout the country were raised considerably, making access to education in the north and the south comparatively more difficult. The University of Malawi, the source of future bureaucrats and teachers, was systematically purged of its non-Chewa administrators and faculty in the early 1970s as part of an attempt to make it a secure seat for the elaboration of a Chewa ethos by loyal Chewa-speakers. Finally, to remove non-Chewa officers from the civil service, a mandatory retirement age of fifty was imposed and large numbers of northerners and southerners thereby retired. Non-Chewa-speaking northerners and southerners were also removed from other positions of authority through widespread and arbitrary detentions, especially between 1973 and 1976.[175]

Such measures are defended within Malawi as attempts to repair regional discrimination that occurred during the colonial period, through which northerners were given unfair advantages. The fact that they are equally directed against the south disproves this point. The south, as has been seen, and especially those parts most afflicted by the thangata system and by over-population, suffered equal or greater deprivation in colonial times. The official marketing bureaucracy followed pricing policies throughout the 1970s and early 1980s that were barely distinguishable from those of the former Native Tobacco Board and this fact, coupled with the curtailing of opportunities for raising capital through labour migrancy abroad, locked southerners firmly into continuing abject poverty. School fees are beyond the means of most villagers, and they have abandoned the belief in education as a route from poverty. The intensifying land shortage, to which the abolition of thangata produced only a temporary solution, is driving more and more young men to work as migrants on the estates and plantations of the Central and Northern Regions, often at rates of pay below the official minimum wage, and they are abandoning behind them their wives and children.[176] Others find a career in the army, which, as part of the alliance with Dr Banda, continues to be Lomwe-dominated.

The plain fact is that, however inappropriate their dream of solving Malawi's problems through control by an educated bureaucracy might have been, the general clamp-down on non-Chewa intellectuals in independent Malawi has been profoundly damaging. There has been no serious public discussion in President Banda's Malawi of the problems the country has encountered since independence:


the impact of the oil crisis; South Africa's policy of regional destabilization; the collapse of the country's economy in the late 1970s and its takeover by the International Monetary Fund; or the exceedingly high rate of population growth in a country of limited resources. The Cabinet Crisis, despite its central significance to Malawi's history and despite the fact that it occurred well over twenty years ago, remains a wholly embargoed topic. The names of those who contributed to the rise of Malawian nationalism in the 1950s can be mentioned only in secret. During the show trial of Orton and Vera Chirwa in 1984, when Vera Chirwa began her testimony with the statement, 'When I founded the Malawi Women's League . . .', a tremor of excitement ran through the spectators. The simplest historical fact has become subversive.

In this closed atmosphere, rumours of ethnic conspiracies abound. Such rumours serve as explanations for people who lack explanations: they arise when an intellectually closed society turns in on itself in search of scapegoats. The language of this discourse in rumour largely takes the form of crude ethnic stereotypes that derive from the colonial period's experience of uneven development. With meaningful analysis by Malawians of the problems that face Malawi remaining proscribed, there is the real danger that the ethnic explanations that are now current will be the only ones available for future discussion, a legacy of the past that will increase the likelihood of communal violence in the country at times of political transition.

previous sub-section
5— Tribalism in the Political History of Malawi1
next chapter