Two weeks ago I visited Malawi. In my sojourn, I tried to connect the past, present and what could be the future.
Malawi used to be the prime sender of labour migrants to the mines in South Africa, competing in this regard with Mozambique and Lesotho.
The mining houses unashamedly exploited this labour to build the metropoles of the world and the sophisticated enclaves of South Africa.
That was so until 1969 when a chartered plane carrying migrant labour crashed, killing Malawian citizens. Expectedly, mining houses reacted callously, forcing then president Kamuzu Banda, who used to have a warm relationship with South Africa, to withdraw Malawian migrant labour from the mineral complex of South Africa.
With the frontier war in Mozambique intensifying and a guaranteed cheap labour supply from there becoming precarious, then prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd introduced his separate development policy.
He granted nominal independence to the TBVC states - Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei - for mining houses to draw cheap labour from these reserves and thwart the threat of recruitment from outside.
Add to that the introduction of school fees at higher primary in 1969 - about 50c per year - that forced older boys to opt for the mines and discontinue their education, assuring the mining industry of a steady flow of labour. The joint energy of homeland creation and the school fees pressure on Basotho boys filled this migrant labour gap to the mines.
Today Malawian people work the land with very rudimentary hand-held implements on fairly small plots of land, but with reasonable yield, given the favourable rainfall.
I was also intrigued by cycling, another feature of this lake nation people, who are referred to as the warm heart of Africa because of their country’s hospitality. A census of the National Statistics Office Malawi on the number of bicycles in the country found that 35 percent of the 4 million households owned a bicycle. This means that at the minimum, about 6 million out of 17 million Malawians cycle. This is the highest number of cyclists per capita, at least in Africa.
While cycling is a matter of necessity for carrying freight and burden in Malawi, in other countries it is done for leisure, fitness, competition and managing climate change.
Therein lies the potential for Malawi to transit not only into the boda boda (motorcycle) like in Uganda from the bicycle with increasing incomes, but diversifying into trades of the future of healthy lifestyles and a Tour de France-like global sporting event.
It has a massive 600km by 50km rain-fed lake and a good range of mountains and flatlands.
The Malawi that contributed to the building of Sandton holds several chips up its sleeve to prove that it is in fact a changing nation that can lead a foray into living a health lifestyle.
Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa. Meet him on www.pie.org.za or @PaliLehohla