More generally, the referendum result is a firm rebuttal to those who would peddle the notion that human rights and democracy are irrelevant to poor people. Colonial governments which presumed to know their Africans were shocked to discover their enthusiasm for politics and voting. Dr Banda, who believed as an African that he knew the peasants, has been similarly surprised. Poor people, be they in Malawi, Cambodia or Iran, want to play a role in determining their futures just as much as people living in wealthy societies. Their support cannot be presumed or easily manipulated. This is a lesson that will be driven home once more when all South Africans enjoy the chance for the first time to vote for their government next April.
It is possible that Dr Banda and his acolytes will attempt to stave off defeat. They may try to ignore the result and, instead of holding multi-party elections, carry on much as before. Pessimists fear there could be a violent struggle. It is well known that Dr Banda has close links with Mozambique's Renamo rebels, who could be called in to support his tottering regime.
Britain and the international community could play an important role in supporting the hopes of those Malawians who voted at the weekend. It was the suspension of aid that forced Dr Banda to hold a referendum: Britain has greatest influence as the largest single former donor. It is important that the West holds firm and allows aid to flow again only when multi-party elections have been held and Dr Banda has bowed to the result.
Democracy will bring its own problems. Zambia after Mr Kaunda is already facing disillusionment as the electorate discovers that promises made by politicians go unfulfilled. The opposition could split along party lines; returned exiles and those who stayed may battle for power. There may be regional divisions: northerners feel economically marginalised compared with the centre and south.
However, a participatory rather than a subject society offers some hope of rescuing the country from its economic stagnation. In the Fifties, the highly-regarded Malawian economist Dunduza Chisiza warned in his pamphlet Africa: The Way Ahead of the need to guard against personal dictatorship. More than 30 years on, right-thinking Malawians are still struggling for that dream.Reuse content