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By Hadebe Hadebe

Malawi is a small country located in Southern Africa. Formerly called Nyasaland, Malawi may appear insignificant because of its lackluster politics and very small economy. But this little giant it is much bigger than countries such as South Africa, DRC, Zimbabwe or Tanzania in terms of shaping the social profile of the entire Southern African subcontinent. Admittedly, the likes of South Africa may be leaders in spreading their culture and economic influence all over the region. However, they still have another century, if not more, to reach the kind of achievements, as little Malawi, in engineering the DNA of its neighbours. Malawi’s eminence in the region should be attributed to its unfortunate past as “a labour reservoir for Zimbabwean and South African colonial capitalist economies.”

Illegal miners in Johannesburg, 2013. PIC: Mdu Ndzingi

Besides these two countries, the people of Malawian descent are found in Congo DR, Namibia, Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania, among others. To these people, Malawian descendants were/are called ‘Nyasas’, in reference to their place of origin Nyasaland or colonial Malawi. Even though many Malawians settled down permanently and gradually transformed from migrants to fully-fledged members of their respective societies, “much of the taxonomy and prejudices followed them into the post- colonial period.” In his doctoral thesis at UFS titled: ‘Mabhurandaya’: The Malawian Diaspora in Zimbabwe: 1895 to 2008 (2015), Anusa Daimon reasons that Malawians later became influential in political, economic and social circles in their respective settlements.

It is this positive role played by Malawians across Southern Africa which motivated me to share this beautiful story about a people. It is important to note that African countries “have become theatres of conflict between self-acclaimed indigenous citizens and outsiders” as seen in Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, DRC and Rwanda. In these Francophone states foreign ethnic groups have been brutalized by the so-called ‘autochthons’. This problem is also found in other parts of the African continent and have led to hostilities (and even violence) in Kenya, Somalia, Zambia, eSwatini, Malawi, and more recently, South Africa. Despite all these challenges, Malawians continue to influence other countries.

Nyasaland’s influence in Zambia

Nyasaland’s influence in Zambia is unmatched. Author Elias Munshya wa Munshya in Made in Nyasaland: The Enduring Influence of Malawian Diaspora over Zambia (2011) argues, “Of Zambia’s neighbours, no country has had more economic, religious, educational, political, and cultural influence over Zambia than Malawi.” Both parents of post-colonial Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda came from modern day Malawi. At some point Frederick Chiluba declared Kaunda a foreigner to denote his Nyasa heritage. Supported by the High Court at first, the decision was “quite bizarre such that the Supreme Court had to reverse it swiftly” in fear of its unintended repercussions.

Also, Rupiah Banda and Joyce Banda are said to have parentage descent from what was then Nyasaland. What is quite interesting about the Bandas is that they are also said to be of Nguni extraction, meaning their ancestral heritage is somewhere in the South African east-coast and eSwatini. The Nguni presence in Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania is explained in detail later in this article. Evidence suggests that Malawians are not only the most travelled peoples in Southern Africa, but that they have huge presence in all countries more than any other. Of course this statement refers only to the movements that have taken place over time and excludes recent migration.

In his book The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa: The Making of Malawi and Zambia 1873-1964 (1972), historian Robert Rotberg notes that Malawi received a better quality of European missionaries including medical doctors, teachers and lawyers from the Church of Scotland. Whereas its immediate neighbour Zambia “received characteristically charismatic evangelicals who took their evangelical mandate more seriously without social or community consciousness.” Munshya concludes that this had a huge impact on the native population.

He argues that, “The missionaries influenced Malawians to the extent that the natives themselves started making the initiative to spread the gospel and education to their surrounding tribes.” A Malawian, named David Kaunda, moved from Livingstonia Mission in Malawi to Chinsali, Zambia, where he started to preach the gospel to a people that had not yet believed. David Kaunda is the father of the first president of Zambia, Kenneth. David Kaunda’s ministry among the Bemba (also found in eastern DRC) became so successful that he immediately established a church and a school there. Kaunda’s influence over Zambia means that the notion that Christianity and ‘civilization’ was a function exclusively carried by Europeans is flawed and should be corrected.

Nyasaland in South Africa, Zimbabwe and beyond

During the colonial era, Nyasaland supplied cheap labour to mines in Zambia, Congo DR and South Africa, amongst others. Even the likes of Malawi’s first president Ingwazi Kamuzu Banda passed through the Witwatersrand (now Gauteng) gold mines before he went to Britain to study. Malawi has been in the forefront of labour migration in the region, a phenomenon that continues to this day. Thus, its citizens who travelled to other countries “settled there and became a very influential part of the population.” Munshya further points out, “History does show that usually, populations that are used or exported to other countries as labourers become rulers of those countries with time and assimilation.”

The South African population has a sizable number of people of Malawian heritage. In ‘Ringleaders and Troublemakers’: Malawian (Nyasa) migrants and transnational labor movements in Southern Africa, c.1910–1960 (2017), Daimon estimates that the number of Malawians in South Africa grew from 4573 in 1911 to 22600 in 1960. Prominent surnames like Banda, Kaunda, Phiri, Chirwa, Moyo, Mtima, Mvula, etc. originate from Nyasaland. Meaning that Malawi runs in our DNA and we must also concur that Malawi is not a silent feature in our society. Actor Connie Chiume, Durban mayor Mxolisi Kaunda, late musician Ray Phiri and former Orlando Pirates goalkeeper Patson Banda are possibly of Malawian heritage. Daimon reiterates, “Until the 1950s, Nyasas dominated both the labour and political spaces of the region in terms of workforce and leadership.”

This was even more so in the region’s two largest economies at the time, namely the Union of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. Another Malawian-born individual Clements Kadalie holds a distinction of being South Africa’s first black national trade union leader. He led the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU). Daimon adds, “The South African historiography has gone to the extent of appropriating Kadalie as one of their own, a black South African.” Nonetheless, it is almost impossible to talk about the development of black labour unions without mentioning Kadalie’s name. Furthermore, Malawi’s influence in the region came from its geography and population size. For instance, its landmass is about five to six times smaller than Zambia, yet has a comparable population to Zambia. This in essence means that Malawian ethnic groups are geographically closer to each other. Munshya says this proximity eliminates “tribal misunderstandings.”

The Nguni element in various groups including the Nsenga, Tumbuka and the Chewa also blurs tribal divisions. In addition, the numbers imply that they are people who are or were always on the move. As stated earlier, Nyasas also migrated to Southern Rhodesia in numbers. Today, Zimbabwe has a large population of Malawian ancestry, or the ‘Mabhurandaya’ as Zim indigenes refer to them to denote their origins in Blantyre, former capital of Colonial Malawi. Although historical evidence suggests that people from Maravi were present during the Monomotapa empire, many of these people started to move south around 1890 as labour migrants but faced several constraints and were largely marginalized. Despite the challenges, Daimon argues that Malawian communities “became an integral component of Zimbabwean social, economic and political history.”

Even the late Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe was said to born of a Malawian father Matibili, and a Shona mother. Zimbabweans generally seem unbothered and choose to not make a big fuss about it as Zambians did with Kaunda and others. Malawi has gifted a lot of leaders as the region than we care to admit. One unofficial source noted that at some point former Zambian president Michael Sata once claimed that the Mwanawasas also came from Malawi. Folkore suggests that the Mwanawasas were initially called Mwanawaza but the Lamba people in Zambia called them Mwanawasa. Mwanawaza is from a Lomwe/Tonga name meaning “the child has come”. Tongas can also be found in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia. It is quite credible to note that Shonas have the same word for child or son. Whereas, in Sotho languages, “mwana” is “ngwana”. In Nguni, the word is “mntwana”.

President Jacob Zuma with President Kenneth Kaunda, Thembisa Johannesburg 2009. PIC: Mdu Ndzingi

The Ngoni people and regional linkages

Malawi is perched in-between the Lozi and Ngoni peoples, who trace their roots from further south. It therefore does not come as a surprise that they assimilated so smoothly in all the countries of Southern Africa. Conversely, it is also claimed that Malawi has been influenced by others too. The Mutharika brothers are allegedly to Lomwes from nearby Mozambique. As mentioned earlier, Malawi in the 19th century, together with Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique, received thousands of people from the South African east coast, now called the Ngoni (related to Nguni groups down south). These people are fully integrated among other tribes. The Ngoni however still insist on their heritage even though they no longer speak their ancestral language.

Professor Pascal Kishindo of the Chancellor College of the University of Malawi refers to the Ngoni as “a culture without a language” due to the fact that the Zulu/Swati speaking tribes adopted the languages of people they conquered, e.g. Tumbuka, Yao, Tonga, etc. On the other hand, Edwin Zulu of the Justo Mwale Theological University in Zambia explains that Malawian evangelicals converted the Ngoni to speak Chichewa. He maintains, “it meant that for one to be a Christian, one had to learn this ‘language of the church’ to be able to read the Bible.” Apparently, this was a strategy by missionaries to tone down Ngoni impis. The British also banned ingoma because they felt it sustained the so-called Nguni militancy. However, Kishindo’s thesis that Chingoni is dead or “a culture without a language” is disputed by Ndabazake Thole of Mzimba who says Ngoni is spoken throughout Southern Africa. Thole also facilitated the teaching of isiZulu in parts of Malawi between 1996 and 2004.

Former South African high commissioner to Malawi in the late 2000s, Ntombi Mabude was quite shocked to witness Malawians singing isiZulu in celebrations like Ingoma or Insindo without the knowledge of the language. This passage on the Ngoni language and its people shows that they still remember “home” in the same way the Ndebele in Zimbabwe tell their origins from northern KwaZulu-Natal.

Malawi, Ngoni and Pan African foundations

What is sad, and perhaps what this article seeks to achieve, is that many South Africans do not even realise their closeness to their relatives in countries such as Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s The Nguni Diaspora (2020) refers to the ‘Nguni diaspora’ to acknowledge the presence of the Ngoni, Ndebele and others. To this day, South African history syllabi would rather focus on European history than teaching our children about the Shangane, Ngoni and Lozi. Maybe, this is amongst many factors that make it easier for South Africans to think they are culturally different from their cousins in neighbouring states. An argument is made that education systems in the different countries can be utilized to teach relevant history of the region beyond liberation politics.

There is a need to emphasize and highlight similarities and deep connections that Eurocentric historians and colonialists worked extremely hard to distort. The Ngoni and the Ndebele, or even the descendants of Soshangane in Mozambique, may be fewer in the countries where they belong to date. However, the linkages are just way too visible to ignore. Any Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele or Swazi speaker passing through Mzimba or Mzuzu in Malawi’s Northern Region, DD Phiri argues, “would not understand the language spoken there but would easily recognise some villages clan and personal names: For instance, village names like Ekwendeni, Emthunzini or Elangeni, clan names such as Nkosi, Mhlanga, Jere or personal names like Sunduzwayo, Kholiwe and Mzamose.” Obviously, the depth of our interconnectedness goes further than we care to talk about it.

Conversely, Malawi itself has left an indelible mark in the South African society in recent years. We may not be aware, or nobody has told us, that the spirit of Nyasaland flows among us. Some people could be leading the charge against ‘makwerekwere’ (derogatory for foreigners) but the Malawian, Zimbabwean or Zambian blood could be running throughout our systems. The present differences, either along tribal or national lines, emanate from lengthy periods of colonial rule which altered identities and settlements as well as recreated states in the European image.

Tribal and citizenship divisions split members of the same family and relations are quickly disappearing. Such things as ‘citizenship diplomacy’ can help to restore the long lost next of kin. The Ngoni came from South Africa (Nguni) which is a part of a broader polity stretching from the Kei River in the Eastern Cape to Tanzania. This is the point that needs to be re-emphasized in order to counter myths in historiography. The archaeologist Thomas N. Huffman in his work The Archaeology of the Nguni Past (2004) stresses that the “The Nguni-speakers form the largest division of the Eastern Bantu language in Southern Africa.” So, Africans need to imagine a different form of statehood for the future to nullify the damage caused by colonialism. In fact, such things as Pan-Africanism can only succeed when the people at the grassroots are involved, especially starting with historical family relations.

Then, it would be easier to knit together the different identities and destroy the myth of mega tribes that seem to cause more divisions than helping people to forge closer relations. One source claims that at some point Ngonis were discouraged to use their original names (that easily linked them to eSwatini or KZN) in order to be a part of their adopted settlements. Somewhere around 1900s individuals dropped their Ngoni and used their fathers’ first names.

Had it not been the case, it is most likely that many people would be having ‘familiar’ names. So, in order for one to have a better understanding of the historical connectedness of these ‘so called’ different tribes, it is advisable to visit Ngoni territories in aforementioned countries to learn ‘izithakazelo’ (clan names) of the Ngonis. A surname like Nyathi became Shonga: soccer player Justin Shonga has close relatives in Mkhondo or Ulundi. It is rather telling that in keeping with the adage that “blood is thicker than water”, President Jacob Zuma maintained very close relations with ex-Malawian president Joyce Banda. Many commentators suggested that they developed a liking for each other because of their common heritage. Someone even said the Malawi-South Africa bilateral relations were at their healthiest during this time.


The challenge is to determine the prevalence of Malawian and Ngoni heritage and genes among the peoples of Southern Africa. One thing is certain, South Africa, for example, has plenty of people with Malawi, Zambian and Ngoni background (I deliberately use the three polities interchangeably due to their intertwined nature). Nonetheless, it is fair to suggest that South Africa possibly gifted Malawi and Zambia three presidents from the Ngoni community, namely Kamuzu Banda, Joyce Banda and Rupia Banda, or even Edgar Lungu. Also, a number of people in South Africa were born in Matabeleland such as Chief Albert Luthuli and Thomas Nkobi. Many individuals in present-day South Africa are children of migrants. It is undeniably that Malawi has been a great contributor to our Southern African region and has given us Kenneth Kaunda, Robert Mugabe, and possibly all of us!

To be continued

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