Born in the tiny British protectorate of Nyasaland in Central Africa, Banda said he had walked to South Africa as a young man, where he worked in the mines and educated himself. Through connections in church, he acquired an education in America, qualified with high grades as a doctor and subsequently studied medicine at Glasgow University in Scotland.
From 1937 to 1957, he practised medicine in Britain, especially in poor areas of Britain during the war and afterwards. He was admired for his capabilities, especially as a black man, to the extent that the puritanical doctor was made an elder in the Church of Scotland.
While abroad, Banda was monitoring the nationalist politics in Africa, particularly his home country but he did not get fully involved until the decision by the British colonial government to join Nyasaland with Northern and Southern Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe respectively) to form the Central African Federation.
Banda who was strongly against federation, which would be an extension of white dominance, was asked several times by nationalist leaders in Malawi to come back home and lead the fight against it. While practising medicine in Ghana between 1953-58, the pressure from nationalists became intense. He took a radical stance and decided to return home in 1958 and as president of the Nyasaland African Congress, he began touring the country making speeches against the federation. To Banda, the federation was a device for ensuring that Southern Rhodesia – which was governed by a white minority – retained control over the majority black populations of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
He would be jailed for 13 months by the colonial authorities who accused him of causing disturbances and increasing African resentment. Released in April 1960, he accepted British constitutional proposals granting Africans in Nyasaland a majority in the Legislative Council and his party won the general elections held in August 1961.
He would become prime minister in 1963, the year the federation was finally dissolved, retaining the post when Nyasaland achieved independence in 1964 under the name of Malawi.
In power, Banda faced a cabinet crisis that began in September of 1964 as ministers had demanded the immediate Africanization of Malawi’s white-dominated economy and urged Banda to take a hostile stance toward colonialist South Africa and Mozambique (an African province of Portugal) but he refused, saying that Malawi’s economic dependence on the territories to its south compelled him to maintain a policy of friendliness toward colonial regions.
It soon became evident that the ministers held no real power against the iron-fisted dictator Banda, who it was revealed, referred to them as his “boys.” He would dismiss three members of his governing cabinet who protested against his autocratic methods and his friendliness with South Africa and the Portuguese colonies.
When a rebellion broke out in 1965, led by a former minister, Henry Chipembere, it failed to take hold in the countryside and he was placed under house arrest before he managed to escape. In 1966, Banda oversaw the writing of a new constitution and ran unopposed for election as Malawi’s first president.
He continued his autocratic one-party rule, gaining firm control over all aspects of the government and jailing his opponents. Yet, according to The Economist, “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.”
In 1971, he was declared president for life by the legislature with his official title being “His Excellency the Life President of the Republic of Malaŵi, Ngwazi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda.”
“As ‘Life President,’ Banda sees himself as the father of the nation and is regarded as such by most Malawians. Unabashedly paternal, he refers to them as ‘my people,’ and to his ministers as ‘my boys’.” He has also imposed his own Victorian ethos of discipline, hard work, and respect for authority on virtually all aspects of life,” an article on The Christian Science Monitor said in May 1986.
Banda also introduced bizarre policies such as banning miniskirts, long hair and kissing in public yet he was often seen excited when surrounded with hundreds of women dressed in clothes bearing his image who danced and heaped praises on him.
For someone who was vehemently against the oppression of Malawi’s population, his close working relations with the apartheid South African government and his decision not to speak out against the radical segregation to the south of Malawi’s borders shocked many African nationalist leaders.
Under his rule, Malawi’s economy struggled and although he ensured supply of fertilisers and other subsidies for the largely agrarian population, his administration also controlled prices, thus, only a few benefited from surplus crops.
Following extensive protests against his pro-Western policies and style of leadership, as well as the withdrawal of Western financial aid, Banda was forced to legalize other political parties in 1993. In the country’s first multiparty presidential elections, held in 1994, he was voted out of office and in 1996 he relinquished the leadership of the Malawi Congress Party.
He was put on trial accused of killing four politicians in 1983 but was acquitted before passing away in Johannesburg, South Africa on November 25, 1997, reportedly aged 98.