BLACK AND WHITE inmates of the plush hotel in Blantyre stop pacing the carpet as a noisy flock of traditionally dressed women step down from the coach. Laughing, dancing, chanting, singing the President's praises, they sway into reception. These are 'Banda's ladies', the roving retinue of Malawi's top-hatted dictator.
Banda's personality dominates life in Malawi. The fertile hillsides shelter his many palatial residences, the 96 person parliament is filled with his friends, and plantations and company directorships all change hands on his say so.
Jolting through the countryside on a bus, or strolling beside sparkling Lake Malawi that runs the length of the country, it is easy to forget the poverty in the hills. All is lush, all green, all neatly cultivated. And everywhere there is food for sale: a handful of roast groundnuts, a dried fish, a packet of tea. Private enterprise is booming.
Certainly, Malawi's healthy economy, buoyed up by expanding tobacco, tea and sugar exports, grew by an average of 3.5 per cent in real terms from 1965 to 1975. And the increase in manufacturing output averaged 13 per cent over the same period. But, with 90 per cent of the tobacco crop grown on private estates, and with the minimum spent on 'non-productive investments' such as education and health, little of this boom is noticed by the people. Instead they see the new roads - top priority item on the development expenditure list - that stretch from plantation to station in the export obsessed country.
Perhaps its a blessing that the burgeoning manufacturing industries, which are increasingly capital intensive, offer such low wages. There has been no problem of urban drift in Malawi - people need to stay on their small-holdings in order to eat.
Malawi's low GNP qualifies it as one of Least Developed Countries and this, along with its internal political stability (Banda's ruled since independence in 1965) has attracted a great deal of Western (Banda is stridently anti-communist) aid and investment. But since the government has concentrated on extending and entrenching the old colonial style of administration, much of the money is concentrated in the hands of Banda's favourites. Press Holdings accounts for 30 per cent of the country's agricultural and industrial economic activity. 5,000 shares were issued. Banda owns 4,999 of them. We do not suppress the acquisitive and possessive instinct here.' Said the President in 1977. 'Instead we encourage it'.
The President is certainly in contirol. But he controls a country increasingly isolated in Africa. Alone in his support of, and links with, South Africa, he finds himself surrounded by potentially hostile neighbours sheltering the many Malawian exiles who bide their time until the life has gone from the President-for-life.