THE throngs of men and women, school children in blue or green uniforms, and government officials had been waiting patiently along the mall of this pleasant, colonial-style town since mid-morning. Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Malawi's Ngwazi (``the savior''), was returning home from his annual six-week crop inspection tour of the countryside. Thousands of ululating mbumba, women's brigades who provide so much of President Banda's support, were on hand to greet him at the airport. As is his custom, the octogenarian ``Life President'' joined in the dancing. It was not until late morning that the motorcade finally appeared.
A Chaplinesque figure in a three-piece suit, with a homburg on his head and a flyswitch in his hand, the Ngwazi rolled by on his way to Sanjika state house in a flame red Rolls Royce, the only one allowed in the country. Acknowledging the ripples of applause, he dipped his whisk rather like the Pope blessing the crowds at St. Peter's.
Malawi's ``little doctor'' has long been the b^ete noire of African politics. Critics have accused him of being a conservative, a puritan, a despot, even a neo-colonialist.
At the same time, others consider him among the continent's more remarkable but misunderstood black statesmen. A pragmatist, he has recognized the limits of his country. He has set simple goals and has achieved many of them, giving Malawi in the 20 years since independence one of Africa's most impressive growth records.
Born in Malawi shortly after the turn of the century -- estimates of his age vary from 80 to 86 -- Banda migrated to Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa in search of work and education. He eventually ended up in the United States, where he qualified as a doctor in 1937. He then went to Britain to continue his studies and to practice medicine. It was there that he met Jomo Kenyatta and other African nationalists.
Banda quickly became a leading activist in Malawi's liberation struggle. But he left England for Ghana in 1953, when the British government supported the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, now Malawi -- a move seen by the nationalists as a consolidation of white settler rule.
Five years later, he returned to his homeland to lead a fiery campaign against the federation. He was detained by the colonial authorities, but released after a year. By 1966, Malawi was independent, with Banda at the helm. Kept South African ties
The Malawian president, however, soon set himself apart from the rest of black Africa.
For one thing, he advocated dialogue rather than confrontation with South Africa. His decision in 1967 to formalize ties with Pretoria caused him to be ostracized by many other black leaders.
``He was only doing what many African states were doing on the sly,'' commented a Western economist.
Today, 40 percent of Malawi's trade is with South Africa. Its shops are filled with South African goods ranging from baby powder to electrical appliances; South African Airways operates regular flights to and from Malawi's captial city, Lilongwe; and tourists from Johannesburg and Capetown flock to Malawi's resorts and parks.
Though still heavily dependent on South Africa, Malawi has been able to put itself on a stronger economic footing than its neighbors through Banda's sense of Realpolitik.
Abroad, the conservative, virulently anti-communist president has kept a low profile, preferring to concentrate on his own country. His relatively successful, free-market economic approach stands out in sharp contrast to the troubled socialist systems of Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique. High costs of transportation
Malawi, however, faces several major problems. The most immediate is transportation.
Continued fighting in Mozambique has virtually cut off Malawi's closest supply routes to the sea -- at Beira and Ncala. Nearly 90 percent of Malawi's trade must now pass through Mozambique's war-torn Tete province to get to Zimbabwe and South Africa. Fuel supplies are brought up by truck via Zambia.
According to Western development officials, these now necessary longer routes have added 20 percent to the country's annual transportation bill, which was already more than $100 million.
Western donors are now trying to help expand Malawi's northern trade corridor, which goes to the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam. Even at its best, however, few believe it will be able to handle more than 25 percent of the traffic. Business sources in Blantyre gloomily note that Tanzania's reputation for chaos and corruption promises to turn the effort into an ``administrative nightmare.''
Nevertheless, many observers feel that Malawi has the capability to deal with such problems. Ngwazi regularly berates the colonialists in public speeches, but he has retained much of their infrastructure.
Other newly-independent African states sought to rid themselves of the vestiges of colonialism as quickly as possible, often to their detriment. But Banda has moved cautiously with regard to ``Africanization.''
One reason was Malawi's lack of qualified administrators at independence, a mere handful of college graduates.
``Banda realized what would happen if Europeans left,'' said a Western diplomat.
According to observers, certain key posts were handed over to Malawians during the early stages. When things began to slide, Banda brought back the Europeans.
Some 550 expatriates, most of them British, still hold positions in the government, a factor that causes resentment among many young, educated Malawians. Some jobs are being transferred, but Banda steadfastly maintains that Malawians will take over onlywhen they are fully qualified.
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. `People still disappear'
Like many black African leaders, Banda is a one-party dictator. He has imprisoned or otherwise rid himelf of most political opponents.
Observers note that Banda has tempered his human rights' excesses of the 1960s and '70s, when he expelled thousands of Jehovahs' Witnesses, discriminated against Asians, and repressed dissidents. But his reputation remains tarnished.
Fewer than 100 political prisoners are now said to be held in Malawi. But according to one West European diplomat, ``People continue to disappear. We ask but it is difficult to get information.'' He even signed paychecks
Observers sense a degree of frustration in the middle and upper echelons of Malawian society at Banda's dominance. Since independence, he has insisted on running everything. It is only in recent years that donor countries have persuaded the aging President to delegate some of his authority, but he still holds the key portfolios of External Affairs, Agriculture, and Justice, as well as Works and Supplies.
``He even used to sign paychecks and leave-permits,'' one senior manager said.
But most observers consider Banda relatively free of corruption. ``It is mainly those in senior positions around him who are involved in illicit dealing,'' said a British diplomat.
This has not prevented the President from handing out landed estates to himself, key party officials, and his female companion. Nor has it stopped him from building over half a dozen presidential accommodations. The grandiose state palace at Lilongwe has been under construction for the past 12 years and has cost nearly $30 million, an extravagance that irritates the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Banda also personally controls the Press Corporation, which, as the country's largest private enterprise, owns supermarkets, hotels, farms, and other businesses. According to the government, its shares are held by ``trust'' for the nation -- an unusual and, as some observers stress, highly questionable arrangement. What happens next?
For Malawi, the big question today is what happens after Banda?
``Many Malawians feel they have enjoyed extraordinary stability because of the old man and cannot visualize life without him,'' noted one expatriate resident.
But to talk about succession is taboo, not to mention a crime. Banda keeps everyone guessing and periodically shuffles his cabinet to ``avoid complacency,'' as one source put it.
Malawi's constitution, however, calls for the secretary general of the Malawi Congress Party to head any transitional government. But even that has its complications. The last party chief was banished to his village two years ago. No one has been appointed to replace him.