Revisiting Malawi, South Africa relations

Chakwera and Ramaphosa

Malawi-South Africa relations originate from a strong historic foundations and the bilateral cooperation has grown, deepened and matured despite some turbulence over the years.

After attaining independence, Malawi established bilateral relationship with South Africa in 1967 as the latter's first formal relationship with an independent African country. Through close links with South Africa, President Banda promoted a policy of “Contact and Dialogue”, and for which he became known as the “Odd Man Out” in African politics. He went on to declare,“I do not like this system of apartheid. But I prefer to talk.”

In defiance of OAU position, Kamuzu Banda was the first black President ever to visit South Africa in 1971. The visit followed a state visit by the then South African Prime Minister Balthazar Vorster to Malawi the previous year. Following Banda’s visit to South Africa, a house was built for his former teacher, Edith Masinga in Pimville, Soweto, at a cost of R42,000.00.

Kamuzu Banda
Banda: Preferred to talk

Over the years, economic cooperation between the two countries has significantly grown as evidenced by the amount of inward Foreign Direct Investment by South African companies operating in Malawi. Overall, Malawi remains one of the most important trading partners for South Africa despite the negative trade balance.

Under the Joint Commission for Cooperation, Malawi and South Africa have 15 Agreements and Memoranda of Understanding covering a wide range of areas. Both countries are represented by High Commissioners in their respective capitals. Additionally, they are members of SADC and other bodies including the Commonwealth. Coincidentally, later next year, Malawi will be the Chairperson of SADC while South Africa will be the Chairperson of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation.

Malawi and South Africa relations share some common foundation, chief among them being the experience of struggle against colonialism and oppression. As noted by late President Mandela, the people of Malawi too showed their revulsion at the apartheid system and played a big role towards attainment of freedom for their comrades. Contrary to this, others have decided to paint Malawi as a traitor for having collaborated with the white minority government. When Kamuzu died, Nelson Mandela is quoted to have noted that Banda had helped the ANC, Sam Nujoma’s led SWAPO and other liberation movements in Africa.

Further reports indicate that when Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Banda had sent a large sum of money, and in the run-up to the elections, Mandela said he had gone to Blantyre to ask for financial assistance for the African National Congress and Banda had "responded magnificently".

Beyond this support and Kamuzu’s “Contact and Dialogue”, it has to be appreciated that for many years Malawian workers have helped build South Africa, including the steel industry.

South Africa labour movement story is incomplete without mentioning one great son from Malawi, Clements Kadalie from Nkhata Bay. In 1918, Kadalie settled in Cape Town and founded the Industrial and Commercial Union (ICU) to protest against unfair labour laws and to protect workers' rights. It became to be known as the largest trade union ever to have taken root in Africa.

Another Malawian James Chirwa was among the first recruits into the ANC/SACP armed wing uMkhontho we Sizwe under the command of Mandela. He was arrested around the 1960s and tried by apartheid regime and sentenced to serve at Robben Island for treason with Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, Zuma, Katrada and others.

Dan Mhango was another Malawian and served as an organiser for ANC in Alexandra Township in Johannesburg in the 1980s when ANC was still banned in South Africa for being labelled a terrorist organisation.

There are numerous more Malawians that played and continue to play a big role towards South Africa development. Reports indicate there could be an excess of 4 million South Africans of Malawi descent (Salawians) currently in South Africa.  

It can therefore be concluded that Malawi and South Africa historically have strong bilateral and regional ties that ought to be strengthened and respected. It is not surprising that President Chakwera decided to make his first official visit to South Africa recently, meeting President Ramaphosa who in his address at the end of the visit indicated that the visit depicted the importance of the relations between the countries.

It should be noted that it is not appropriate for current events to pit regional great partners against each other as with the current bush like skirmishes which may have a knock-on effect on diplomatic relations between Malawi and South Africa. There is alot to be gained from closer ties and nothing should ever come closer to destabilize them as Malawi and South Africa are in motion celebrating Jerusalema. Shosholoza Malawi! Shozoloza South Africa!